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Volume 22 No. 23
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MLB stays ahead of the curve with Generation Z

As the 2019 MLB season takes its annual All-Star break, it might come as a surprise to those writing baseball’s obituary that the sport is actually showing impressive gains with the next generation. Those improvements could help the sport grow during what has clearly been a tumultuous time in the sports fandom landscape.

Leagues and teams are searching for ways to better understand the motivations and behaviors of today’s fans. Technology has turned the broadcast model upside down. On-the-go consumers want the convenience of watching games on their terms, which often means platforms that are mobile, internet-based and cost effective. Perhaps “content is still king,” but only if it’s available on the right broadcast platform.

We owe much of the topsy-turvy fan engagement patterns to the younger generations like millennials, and to an even greater degree, Generation Z. After all, Gen Z — those born in 1997 or later — is the first generation of digital natives. They grew up in a social media-dominated era, where OTT networks brought information about their favorite athletes and broadcasts of their favorite teams directly to their smartphones. A recent quantitative survey of fans across generations, co-authored by the NYU Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport and Fox Sports, identified some revealing patterns of behavior.

A funny thing happened to Gen Z on the way to disconnecting from the traditional sports landscape. They fell in love with baseball — the 150-year-old sport that their grandparents favored.

How are Gen Zers different from baby boomers? Boomers engage with their favorite sport primarily via watching games on broadcast and cable TV and attending live events. Conversely, Gen Z seldom watch full games, and it is rarely via broadcast or cable. They are more likely to consume their sports via the internet, watching parts of games, listening to podcasts, playing fantasy sports, devouring highlights on social media and cruising websites that cover their favorite team. For their favorite sport, 41% of Gen Z’s “engagement” is through TV, while for baby boomers, it’s 75%. Gen Z connects with their favorite sport over the internet twice as often and they’re three times more likely to listen to podcasts or to play fantasy sports, compared to boomers.

A funny thing happened to Gen Z on the way to disconnecting from the traditional sports landscape. They fell in love with baseball — the 150-year-old sport that their grandparents favored. You may think this is nostalgia’s finest hour. Not so fast. They fell in love with baseball because they relate to today’s game. When sports executives ask, “Does Gen Z really care about sports the way previous generations did?” a Gen Zer might say, “Do sports really care about me?” In the case of MLB, through astute strategy, good fortune or a combination of the two, Gen Z found a sport whose practices align nicely with their interests. 

When it comes to baseball, Gen Z is all in. For perspective, millennial and Gen X sports fans have a strong preference for the NFL as their favorite sport — by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. For Gen Z, MLB has rallied to pull even with the NFL as their favorite sport. That’s partly because football declines in popularity as you move from Gen X to millennials, and finally to Gen Z. But for baseball, millennials are the low-water mark, with Gen Z representing a significant resurgence. 

What might be behind the surge in popularity among the youngest fans? First, MLB has focused on reinvigorating youth baseball participation with long-standing programs like Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), the MLB Urban Youth Academy and more recently, Play Ball. The launch of MLB.TV in 2002 and the At Bat mobile app in 2012 gave MLB the lead in putting games where young fans were spending their time — online. In the era of big data and analytics, baseball has always been the sport that lends itself most to data analysis, which appeals to many young fans. MLB was at the forefront in bringing technology onto the field of play to measure a wide range of player stats, from the velocity of a pitcher’s fastball to the launch angle of a batter’s home run, further providing social currency to the young fan.

There are a few other notable trends among Gen Z when compared to earlier generations, all of which hold true for baseball. There is a deeper devotion to the athlete vs. the team. When asked if they are bigger fans of specific athletes or teams and leagues, Gen Z favors athletes by a margin of 2-to-1 over baby boomers. Gen Z is markedly more socially conscious than their elders, which influences their fan affiliations. Gen Zers are three times more likely to believe that sports is a powerful vehicle for social progress. 

In order to maintain its popularity among Gen Z, MLB will need to stay ahead of the curve by using the latest technology to engage fans. This might mean creating a second (or third) screen broadcast, or using augmented reality to satisfy the analytical fan who wants deeper insights into in-game action. Smart stadiums wired with the latest technology and conveniences and leading-edge environmental practices will connect with young fans on their terms. As the 2019 baseball season moves into the dog days of summer, there is hope that a new generation of fans is emerging who will keep America’s favorite pastime alive, but on their own terms.

Vince Gennaro is the associate dean of the Preston Robert Tisch Institute for Global Sport at the NYU School of Professional Studies.

Questions about OPED submission guidelines or letters to the editor? Email editor Jake Kyler at jkyler@sportsbusinessjournal.com