How Sports Brands Can Outpace Gen Z Expectations

by Jules Coke July 5 2024

Sports brands are about to drop the ball. 

We’re in the golden season of major sports events: the Paris Olympics, the Tour de France, the ICC Men’s T20 World Cup, Wimbledon and the US Open, the Copa América, and the 2024 UEFA European Cup. 

Looking at the record viewership numbers for the 2024 Super Bowl, 2023 Cricket World Cup, or Wimbledon, it’s all too easy for sports brands to feel confident. 

Paris Olympics [Alamy]

But Zoomers don’t seem so excited … 

  • A 2021 Emory Marketing and Analytics Center study revealed that only 23% of Generation Z describe themselves as passionate sports fans versus 42% of millennials.
  • Moreover, 27% of Gen Z describe themselves as “anti-sports,” compared with single-digit percentages in other generations.
  • A 2023 survey found that 33% of Gen Z don’t watch sporting events, compared to 24% of the overall population. Nearly 50% have never attended a professional sports event.
  • Franchise fandom is declining among young people: 38% of Gen Z don’t have a favorite sports team, compared with 25% of all US adults. 

If sports brands don’t revamp their offerings for younger generations, crowds will dwindle, and franchises will risk a sharp decline in fans and revenue. 

Brands have spent around $7 billion annually over the last five years to build or renovate stadiums and arenas, compared to an average of $2.7 billion annually from 2003 to 2007. Stadiums are an important piece of the puzzle, but only one part.

Instead of just pouring money into just this one bucket, sports brands must create multidimensional experiences that draw in a new generation of fans with innovative and sensory-rich offerings. 

Tottenham Hotspur Stadium

These are our five rules for building a multidimensional sports brand:

  1. Grant in-person access
  2. Knock it out of the park 
  3. Learn the dark arts (of TikTok)
  4. Explore beyond the hot dog
  5. Join the esports revolution

1. In-person access = more superfans

To cultivate superfans, clubs must engage audiences IRL. They have the perfect venue to do so: the stadium. This ready-made brand HQ embodies the club and is a striking destination, perfect for hosting visceral activations.

However, there is a risk that these ‘brand/club experiences’ will be perceived as lackluster ‘tours’ consisting of glorified selfie stations, followed by a retail opportunity. Clubs have to do more.

A peek inside the dressing room or a look at the blood-stained jersey from a famous match won’t cut it anymore. Sports brands are premium ventures, and young audiences now expect novel, polished, and immersive experiences baked into their visits.

Iconic teams are already doing it:

FC Barcelona’s Total Xperience
  • FC Barcelona’s Total Xperience offers an immersive tour with interactive exhibits, holographic displays, a chance to watch the current stadium construction, and a walkable replica of Barça’s iconic field.
F1® DRIVE – London
  • Tottenham Hotspur have an immersive go-karting experience, F1® DRIVE, in the basement of their stadium to drive revenue in the off-season. Journey created a digital layer throughout; learn more here.
F1® DRIVE – London

2. Knock it out of the park

There are only so many fans you can show around the stadium. To scale experiences, sports brands must reach into the pulsing city centers. 

For example, the NBA House, an immersive four-day fan experience, features interactive basketball games, NBA Finals viewing parties, a gaming space, exclusive merch, meet-and-greets with NBA Legends, and contests that allow fans to win official NBA prizes. The pop-up has run in Vancouver, New York City, Paris, and Beijing. 

NBA House Sau Paulo [Alamy]

But quality experiences like the NBA House are few and far between, so let me, a tennis fanatic, imagine what the perfect day at, say, “The Wimbledon Experience” might look like … 

(shameless pitch incoming)

  • The Wimbledon experience is brought to life in iconic locations like Times Square, Mexico City’s Zócalo, Shibuya Crossing, or Place de la Concorde. 
  • As you enter, you tread on grass cut identically to the Wimbledon turf (or eat it like Novak Djokovic) while a holographic, AI-powered tour guide recounts the history of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. 
  • You have an accompanying Wimbledon app that allows you to book replica courts, match you with like-minded players, and access personalized training content. 
Dreams of Tennis …
  • You test your skills on a smart court, where real-time performance tracking allows an expert to analyze your serve and offer advice. 
  • In an immersive tennis simulator, you’re transported to match day at the iconic center court, facing off with a virtual rendering of your favorite opponent. Federer, Djokovic, or Williams? Choose your fighter.  
  • Health and wellness sessions teach you to train like a tennis star with professionals who have been courtside in the tournament. 
  • In the evening, you refuel at a tennis-themed restaurant. Think Pimms, strawberries, cream, and champagne. 

(shameless plug concludes)

3. Learn the dark arts (of TikTok)

Social media content from athletes is the single largest driver of engagement for younger audiences, with 63% of Gen Z saying it increases their engagement versus 42% from other generations. 

Leo Messi FC Barcelona – Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain [Alamy]

Gen Z follows athletes not only for their performance but also for their personalities and values; they resonate particularly with advocates and activists like Billie Jean King and Naomi Osaka, as well as those who revolutionize the game and maintain compelling off-court personas like the Williams sisters and NBA big man Luka Dončić.

Sports brands that tap into these qualities will turn casual viewers into devoted fans.

Leagues are taking note: The NFL has hired over 1,000 influencers to promote content and encourage fandom, and MLB has also partnered with stars to be brand ambassadors on social media.

Winning sports content shows us … 

  • Athletes’ everyday lives, even if it’s just an off-the-cuff Snapchat video/AMA/TikTok dance. 
  • Behind-the-scenes content, like Netflix’s Formula 1: Drive to Survive does with the drivers and races of the F1 World Championship.
  • Exclusive content, such as Chelsea FC’s live streaming of training sessions, through its streaming service Chelsea TV.

4. Explore beyond the hot dog.

Real talk: Gen Z isn’t enthralled by nachos, burgers, and crackerjack.

Sports brands have a bad rep for catering to an audience that increasingly prioritizes ethical and health-conscious diet choices.

Half Time … [Alamy]

Feed their appetites with:

  • Signature meals based on famous athletes’ favorite foods. Think Travis Kelce’s go-to smoothie or Simone Biles’s championship quesadillas.
  • Health-conscious options or meals that cater to fans’ dietary requirements: meat-free burgers, veggie bowls, hummus platters, you name it.
  • A spot in the stadium where food can be delivered from area restaurants during games. Postmates your favorite tacos for the seventh-inning stretch? Why not?
  • The inverse: an app that lets you order stadium food across the city to the sports bar where you watch the match. Those soft pretzels aren’t going to order themselves.

Sports brands can also elevate their hospitality to draw in visitors in the off-season. Journey’s design for the Dallas Cowboys Club offers the ultimate tailgating experience on game days and fine dining on all other days.

The Dallas Cowboys Club

5. Join the esports revolution

Esports has significantly more Gen Z fans than other generations (35% among Gen Z versus 19% among all adults). 

Sports fandom hasn’t disappeared; it’s just moving into new mediums. Traditional sports teams and brands must create online experiences to remain relevant to these massive online audiences. 

Schalke 04 LOL team event

Savvy sports brands, teams, and leagues are already jumping on the esports bandwagon …

  • The English Premier League’s ePL spinoff hosts a virtual version of the league where the UK’s top FIFA gamers battle it out. 
  • The National Basketball Association’s 2K League hosts livestreams and gaming championships for the 22 NBA franchises with esports teams. 
NBA 2K Leauge event Shanghai, China [Alamy]

MLB hosts watch parties on Twitch. The NFL offers special Fortnite skins so users can customize their avatars with their team’s jerseys.

In the Manchester City VR experience, fans can take a virtual tour of the Etihad Stadium, visit the locker room, and even experience the thrill of walking onto the pitch with the team through immersive videos. 

Journey created an esports world for the Costa Rican soccer team Liga Deportiva Alajuelense in Fortnite and Roblox. Learn more here

Digital experiences won’t silo off younger audiences from the rest of the fanbase. They’re an opportunity to entice those fans into attending live events and a chance to create a whole new community in virtual spaces.

Everywhere all at once, all the time.

As interest in traditional sports wanes among Gen Z, brands must innovate beyond the stadium and create multidimensional experiences that engage fans and communities on virtual, physical, social, and emotional levels.

By focusing on immersive, sharable experiences and tapping into the values of younger audiences, sports brands ensure they remain relevant, create lasting, meaningful memories, and cultivate lifelong fans.

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