An original Sports and Society Initiative article by intern Darby Clark
Sports stadiums and arenas might finally fill up again once the pandemic begins to subside, but when they do, members of one age group will be harder than others to find in the stands: Generation Z.
According to recent research from Morning Consult, Gen Zers between the ages of 13 and 23 are half as likely to watch sports regularly than their millennial counterparts, and twice as likely as millennials to never watch live sports.
SSI faculty affiliate Dawn Anderson-Butcher, a professor in the College of Social Work at Ohio State, also serves as director of the Community and Youth Development Institute and as director of teaching and research for the OSU LiFEsports Initiative. She said these numbers make sense considering the technological environment in which Generation Z was raised.
“They grew up with technological innovations and social media, so that’s how their lives are all intertwined,” Anderson-Butcher said. “They’re doing their work virtually, they’re doing their peer interactions and networking virtually, they get their research virtually—why wouldn’t they do their sports that way, too?”
Viewership isn’t the only aspect of sport fandom that has lessened in Generation Z. About 53% of Gen Zers actually consider themselves sports fans, whereas for millennials and adults, that percentage lands at 69% and 63%, respectively.
“I don’t think interest in sports has declined, but I think the way that people play sports and therefore the way that they consume sports has changed dramatically,” Trevon Logan, executive director of SSI and economics professor at Ohio State, said. “One of the questions that people have about sporting into the future is, if you don’t play a sport, how do you become a fan of the sport?”
Logan said increased specialization and cost for youth sports in the United States have contributed greatly to shifts participation of various sports, but those aren’t the only forces at play.
“The question is, what is the other thing that is taking consumers’ attention? And certainly in the last couple of years, sports themselves have been sort of secondary to a lot of other social issues that are taking place,” Logan said.
This makes sense for Generation Z, a group of young people who are much more culturally conscious than previous generations, Anderson-Butcher said.
“They have these technological minds, but they still value human needs and diversity,” Anderson-Butcher said. “They care much more about social issues, they want a work-life balance, they value their social interactions as much as their professional ones, they have a human element to them perhaps that is different than other generations we’ve had for quite some time, maybe.”
Although live sports viewership is lower in Generation Z, the research shows esports’ popularity skyrocketing. Among Gen Zers surveyed, esports was more popular than every other sport besides professional basketball and professional and college football.
Esports, Anderson-Butcher said, is an example of the transformation that the sports world is going to have to pursue in order to gain viewership in Gen Z.
“What Gen Z[er] sits down for four hours and watches a football game?” Anderson-Butcher said. “Their time doesn’t go that way; they’re working in minutes. They’re looking for answers in seconds because that’s how they’ve been able to get information, via technology.
Figuring out how to broadcast in ways that are going to attract and keep younger viewers is going to be something that the media world is going to have to figure out.”
Logan said it’s still unclear how all of these generational trends in sport are going to shake out but looking ahead to the next generation of athletes will be crucial.
“The generation that’s in school now is the generation after Generation Z,” Logan said, “and what are they going to do in terms of their sports participation? That’s going to be really important.”