Brand Strategy

How brands can engage with the next generation of sports fans

Next-gen fans are pros at sniffing out inauthentic content, and their sports fandom spans beyond the traditional leagues. Marketers may have to update their playbooks.
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Ethan Miller/Getty Images

· 5 min read

Gen Z has been accused of killing lots of things—side parts, malls, and hustle culture, to name a few—but sports isn’t one of them.

Younger consumers are, however, engaging with sports and athletes differently than older fans, executives and athletes repeatedly said during Advertising Week New York.

“I’ve seen emails recently around how Gen Z is killing off email,” Matt Fasano, SVP of Wasserman’s Next Gen department, said during a panel at the conference. “This Gen Z audience is forcing businesses to evolve, and sports are no different.”

Working directly with athletes and letting them steer the content ship can help brands connect with next-gen sports fans who easily detect campaigns that feel inauthentic, as can tapping into nontraditional spaces like gaming and esports.

Lie detector?

Consumers are “more savvy than ever when it comes to marketing and advertising,” according to Allison McDuffee, director of measurement and insights for the Americas at Twitch, but “that doesn’t mean that they are averse to it.” In fact, they’re “giving brands their permission to get involved” with sports more so now than ever before, she added.

According to a survey conducted by Twitch of 12,000 respondents around the world that McDuffee shared during Advertising Week, 66% of sports fans said they have a positive feeling about brands that have been in the space for a while, while 65% said they like to see brands make or sponsor content about sports.

But authenticity—something of a buzzword at the conference—is key for brands that hope to grab the attention and loyalty of sports fans. “They want direct,” Anthony Rodriguez, founder and CEO of talent management agency Lineage, said. “They want authentic.”

From the horse’s athlete’s mouth

If you don’t believe the marketers, ask the athletes.

“You want that brand to be authentic to who you are,” Minnesota Lynx guard Aerial Powers said. “You want that brand to align with your values and share the same values as you do, because the more you are authentic, the better it is for both the athlete and the brand.”

Powers noted that she was “decked out” in clothes from Nike’s Jordan brand, one of her sponsors that she said has, in her experience, proven its commitment to women athletes as much as male athletes. She also gave a shout out to gaming gear brand HyperX, another sponsor, which she said reached out because of her interest in gaming. Because HyperX showed an interest in what she was doing off the court, “in return, I do everything I can to help their brand,” she said.

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Lexie Brown, guard for the LA Sparks, said athletes are more in control of their own content now than they were a decade ago when she started playing in college, and have more freedom when it comes to brand partnerships. As a result, she said she looks to work with brands that are open to her input on their creative briefs.

“I personally like to only promote products that I actually use, things that I believe in,” Brown said. “I don’t want to just drop a random, obvious ad in the middle of my page.”

Even high school athletes like Johnuel “Boogie” Fland, who already has NIL experience under his belt, believe brands should take their cues from athletes and their audiences. “Brands need to know the fanbase,” Fland said. “They need to know the audience, who the person you’re working with targets, their preferences, and their interests.”

Gaming the system

Some younger audiences are more interested in esports (and women’s leagues) than traditional leagues. The esports audience is primarily in the 16- to 35-year-old range, with the highest concentration between the ages of 16 to 25, according to Naz Aletaha, global head of League of Legends esports at Riot Games.

Those esports fans are among the ones who appear open to brand messaging: Aletaha said that after the League of Legends World Championship last year, more than 70% of fans said they would choose Mastercard as their next credit card because of the brand’s involvement with the league.

Mastercard was one of the first big brands to show large-scale support for esports back in 2018, Aletaha said. It’s still active in the space, having recently announced the Mastercard Gamer Academy to help create “a more inclusive environment” for women gamers. Still, the brand has been careful in its approach to building a relationship with that fanbase over the years, according to Chief Marketing and Communications Officer Raja Rajamannar.

“We have gotten to this space with a lot of trepidation, because we knew nothing about esports,” Rajamannar said. “Research has shown that the Gen Z, who are really the core of this audience, are very good at rejecting brands. A brand is seen as an intrusion into their space. They don’t want any crass commercialism happening in their sacred space, so we have to learn to be subdued, subtle, native.”

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