I’m very much an older millennial when it comes to my sports fandom.
I live and die with Washington Nationals baseball; and please don’t try to move me from the couch when I’m watching NFL RedZone on a TV during the second half of the early Sunday games. But to some extent, at 35, I’m a relic – my sports consumption more closely mirrors my father’s than that of sports fans just a decade my junior.
It’s been well-documented that like every subsequent generation, Gen Z is fundamentally different than those that came before. Based on the data we see at Whistle, we have leaned into these trends for some time as we create and curate sports content that appeals to today’s generation. But the findings from our recent study on Gen Z males and their take on sports are entirely groundbreaking for what qualifies as a “sport” today and how to reach this young audience through sports marketing and sponsorship.
These young men are looking beyond traditional sports (the “Big 5”: football, basketball, baseball, hockey and soccer) to more emerging activities. A majority of men ages 13 to 21 (56%) feel that non-traditional sports are more relevant to their generation than traditional sports, and a majority (52%) also already spend more time following non-traditional sports than traditional sports.
How do Gen Z men define a sport? In short, acceptance. Generally, these young men are open minded and progressive, and they value creativity, innovation, skill and hard work. This underpins their extremely inclusive view of sports with a greater emphasis on emerging activities alongside traditional ones. Under their broader definition, the core components of a sport today, according to Gen Z males, are:
- Competition, but not necessarily trophies
- Skills, not just strength
- Mental strategy
To them, sports today include gaming, extreme running, obstacle courses, trick shots, parkour and more.
The sports media and sponsorship spaces have already begun to be disrupted by these trends and will see an even greater shift moving forward. Red Bull started a partnership with Fortnite star Tyler “Ninja” Blevins earlier this year; meanwhile, popular content like dice stacking and trick shots on social media are core examples of the vitality and virality of non-traditional sports.
Part of the reason for the success of these emerging sports is that they were born on the platforms where Gen Z already spend their time. Nearly three out of four Gen Z males visit YouTube daily – and that extends to sports. 65% say they watch non-traditional sports content on YouTube, more than twice the number who say they watch on TV. Similarly, a majority follow this emerging content on social media vs. just a fraction who use other sources.
In contrast, young males today perceive “Big 5” sports as foreign to social media. A fifteen-year-old male told us, “If I were in charge of traditional sports, I would broadcast them on YouTube.” Given this disconnect from their preferred media, a majority (55%) of Gen Z men forgo watching full games in favor of finding highlights afterwards – underscoring the headwinds for a product born offline.
Even when young men do tune in, marketing during traditional sports games isn’t having the impact it once did because the games are oversaturated with jersey decals, in-game reads and in-stadium signage. According to another young man, advertising during traditional sports events “takes away from the game” and can easily be overlooked. Meanwhile, the vast majority of Gen Z men (69%) say advertisers are a welcome part of the still relatively blank canvas of non-traditional sports.
Looking forward, brands needing to connect with Gen Z males through sport must adapt their traditional approach to Gen Z’s sports and distribution platforms of choice. Today’s significantly less-crowded market of emerging sports will allow brands to earn endemic status, activate powerful word-of-mouth marketing and drive both affinity and revenue. Two-thirds of Gen Z men say they feel more positively about a brand that sponsors or advertises around the sports they follow, and three out of five are more likely to consider their products – and a majority of this audience is focused on non-traditional sports.
A 20-year-old man shared with us that if a brand gets involved with a non-traditional sport it shows him that they are “passionate” about the same sports he is “so it gives [him] a connection to [the brand].” Earning this status early and gaining brand evangelists among Gen Z is vital with a generation that makes decisions based on what their friends recommend. Seven out of 10 young men are more likely to buy a product if a friend recommends it. Likewise, 65% are more likely to buy something if a social media influencer promotes it.
To effectively reach people younger than me, who aren’t quite as attached to the traditional “Big 5” sports as I am, brands must invest now in the emerging sports that Gen Z men love and follow. Their efforts today will lay the groundwork for tomorrow by building lasting relationships with these consumers.
Although non-traditional sports already present an enormous opportunity, half of Gen Z males say their consumption is a zero-sum game – meaning that as they follow new sports, it takes away from other sports they follow. This migration to emerging sports at the expense of the “Big 5” is a trend which Whistle will continue to track over time given the broad implications across the industry.
To download the full results from the “Changing The Game: How Gen Z is Redefining Sports, Consumption & Sponsorship” study from Whistle, click here.
Matthew Gottlieb leads the Insights & Media team at Whistle, overseeing all consumer research, social media/marketing analytics and media planning, buying and optimization. He lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife and son.
Whistle is a sports and entertainment company that creates, curates and distributes original content. Blending proprietary insights, a diverse creator community, and unparalleled production capabilities, Whistle fosters a spirit of positivity that entertains and inspires its vast and highly-engaged global audience. For more information, visit www.whistlesports.com.