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Volume 27 No. 32
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Don’t Press Pause On Engaging Gen Z During The Pandemic

While college football is on hold, MLB, NHL and NBA are playing in empty arenas and stadiums, the Masters will go on without spectators in November, and sports as we know it at the professional, minor league, college and Olympic levels have either been canceled, postponed or placed on pause for the foreseeable future due to the COVID-19 pandemic, do not let that delay your efforts to engage Generation Z.

Sports leagues, teams, properties and sponsors should actually double down now on Gen Z because when sports return, they will be your most important customer. If you don’t believe me, just look to The Bronx where the New York Yankees just reached a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with TikTok.

You are probably asking yourself, with the majority of Gen Zers still in school, why should I care? Or, you are thinking that without a product on the field, I have much more important priorities right now than capturing the attention of teenagers. Let me put it this way: Think of Gen Z in 2020 as a startup business or a just-issued IPO. If you can invest in the next greatest generation now, you will be receiving a significant return on your investment for many years to come.

Let me start by giving you two compelling reasons. First, Generation Z is now the largest consumer segment in the world. There are more Gen Zers than any other cohort. In 2020 in the U.S., there are 65 million Gen Zers, accounting for nearly 40 percent of all consumers. Second, according to Business Insider Intelligence, Gen Z has an estimated $143 billion in spending power, with much of that coming from the influence they have on their parents, family and friends.

With that, you need to truly understand why Gen Z will make or break your sports business by the time we get to 2030. 

First, Generation Z does not consume the traditional media channels you have relied on to market to your current fans. They also won’t sit through a three-hour game telecast. They don’t consume traditional media and Facebook is something that their parents think is cool, so they stay as far away as possible. They over-index on YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat. Younger Gen Zers can’t get enough of TikTok. In my early 2020 nationwide survey of Gen Zers, more than 90% said they prefer YouTube for video content and 43% tune in several times a day for their video needs.

The good news is that sports and esports rank high when it comes to the news and information Gen Z is seeking. In my same online survey of Gen Zers, 33% claim that they crave sports content and 28% seek esports content with only entertainment and pop culture content scoring higher. 

However, Gen Z’s media consumption is only one critical factor. If you market via YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, you need to do it in an authentic, creative and engaging Gen Z way. This generation just doesn’t respond to traditional advertising even if you place it on the nontraditional channels they consume.

In my September 2019 national survey of Gen Zers, more than 75% claim that the most effective way a brand can market to them and engage them is through unique events and experiences, even virtual experiences. They can’t get enough of events because they have an insatiable craving to immerse themselves in Instagramable experiences and share that content on their social media channels. Additionally, gaining access to something or someone in sports that the masses can’t purchase a ticket for is just as important.

Why? They love to impress their followers. Nearly 50% genuinely believe that their Gen Z friends love their content. Sports entities that can leverage their assets and offer those immersive experiences even and access, even if it is virtual, will win over Gen Zers who will then serve as brand advocates for you. And the greatest online influence in the lives of Gen Zers are their Gen Z friends, according to 41% nationwide who participated in my survey. 

If you truly empower Gen Zers you will effectively engage them building mutually beneficial long-term relationships. It should start with a Gen Z incubator. Every sports business should first designate all their Gen Z employees as ZEOs and then have those ZEOs recruit and engage younger Gen Zers to be part of a proprietary Gen Z council. You should then hand over creative control of your advertising, content creation and distribution and even some of your owned media channels that you are using to reach Generation Z to actual Gen Zers.

In April 2019, the NHL was the first major professional sports league to publicly launch a Gen Z think tank, the NHL Power Players Program. This first-ever youth advisory board consisting of Gen Zers, ages 13-17, was established to advise the league and its teams on how to effectively engage what I believe is the most important consumer segment for sports business now and for the next few decades. NHL Chief Marketing Officer Heidi Browning commented, “Gen Z is the largest and most diverse generation in our lifetime. … NHL Power Players provides a forum to share feedback and collaborate on ideas on how to attract and engage the next generation of sports fans.”

No previous generation has required this type of personalized and immersive collaboration from sports brands.

If you truly believe you are innovative and transformative especially during this pandemic, you will commit today not to marketing to Generation Z but to effectively engaging them by inviting them into your organization to serve as influencers of content, social media, virtual experiences, access, promotions and fan engagement. With this forward-thinking approach, you will be setting your sports entity up for long-term business success. Without it, you should begin planning for a slow demise with an expiration date of 2030 or 2035.        

Mark Beal is co-author of “Engaging Gen Z: Lessons To Effectively Engage Generation Z Via Marketing, Social Media, Retail, Work & School,” and the author of “Decoding Gen Z: 101 Lessons Generation Z Will Teach Corporate America, Marketers & Media.” He is also an assistant professor of professional practice in public relations in the Rutgers University School of Communication & Information where he collaborates with hundreds of Gen Zers weekly.