03 Aug 2022

By: Sport Industry Group

More than 17 million people tuned in to watch the UEFA Womens EUROs final last Sunday, The Hundred is set to broadcast full matches on TikTok, and a cryptocurrency partner is becoming standard for Premier League football clubs. Everywhere we look, sports fandom is evolving.

Joe Weston, Head of Sport at We Are Social Sport took some time to explore what is happening among sports fans and how marketers can adapt and respond to keep up…

Sports fandom is changing. At a time when only 23% of Gen Z consider themselves avid sports fans, compared to 42% of millennials, sports marketers face a common challenge; how to engage this next generation of sports fans.

Many industry insiders feel that the nature of sport itself - the competition - needs a complete overhaul (looking at you European Super League). I disagree. Instead, I think sport finds itself at this juncture due to a failure of creativity in marketing. When sports marketers have responded to shifting attitudes and behaviours, audiences have responded and taken to those sports with the same fervour and passion as they always have (looking at you Formula 1)! 

So how can the industry tackle these cultural shifts head on, and shape the future of sports marketing?


Inclusivity is paramount

As one in four ethnic minority football fans report that they’ve been the subject of racist abuse on social media, sport has an ugly problem. Many people blame the platforms themselves for allowing this hate, but in my opinion that’s just another moral panic and frankly lets the mainstream media off the hook. You only need to see the level of vitriol and anger on any debate show to see how influential voices in the game allow for the space for this hate to fill. 

In this age, we all have a duty to moderate and positivity is paramount. Any brand that can address this problem and generate that positivity will tap into something many people care deeply about. Recently we’ve seen platforms such as Strava and the adidas running app record spikes in usage after creating an encouraging, social environment through the positive community that is nurtured there.

Brands need to stand up and show up for important causes, from diversity to sustainability. Adidas’ Run For The Oceans campaign is a great example of this; accessible on their running app and encouraging environmental sustainability, a cause that holds great importance to Gen Z and beyond. 


Get under the skin

More and more athletes are using their platform to promote their values and interests beyond performance, and audiences are responding. Sports fans have a hunger for deeper, emotional, human-led storytelling, as evidenced through the success of Netflix franchises such as Drive to Survive, Last Chance U and Cheer; programmes that build deep connections with viewers through intimate, first person portrayals and in doing so inspire a new generation of sports fans. When partnering with athletes, brands can get beneath the surface and draw out the personality that makes their story unique and all the more compelling for it. 

Relatability wins

TikTok is bringing a whole new kind of athlete to the forefront. You no longer have to smash records and make headlines in order to attract fans.

Athletes such as Ilona Maher and Jadan Raymond are connecting to audiences through creator and TikTok-first behaviours. These individuals aren’t major sporting stars but are treating their role as a creator as seriously as their sporting careers, building a loyal following that will stick by them as they rise through the ranks. They’re tapping into the community’s sense of humour, embracing TikTok trends and with the NCAA loosening rules around commercial deals for student-athletes, this move towards peer-driven aspiration is just getting started. 

It’s a fans’ world

Fans are no longer content with being the spectator, they want to be involved, driving and defining the games they love. With creators holding more agency in the social space, brands need to embrace community participation. Football fans began Sing Your Dialect, a Twitter Space which saw professional footballers and clubs get involved, communicating directly with their audience through an audience-led activation. 

Brands need to encourage fan participation, whilst also participating in fan creations. This will strengthen the relationship between sports and its fans, marketing with communities, not at them. 


Experiment in new digital spaces


Finally, at an executional level, we have a duty to play where our audience plays. As our lives have become increasingly online following the pandemic, emerging platforms have burst onto the mainstream. Brands need to go with the flow and embrace these new digital spaces headfirst if they want to connect with this new generation of sports fans. Twitch and Roblox’s popularity has seen a huge boost over the past few years; Roblox’s monthly active users increased from 35 to 150 million between 2017 and 2020. 

Once an idea has been developed, do the research and discover the places that your audience spends their time. Experimentation is key to discovering what works and with whom; fans are no longer seeking out brands, it’s up for brands to seek our their audiences. With these platforms showing growth, there’s no better time for brands to get stuck in and create a strategy that appeals to the new audience behaviours on these platforms. 

Take UEFA’s Women’s Euro’s 2022 Roblox experience. Featuring the release of three virtual mascots who each had a different footballing skill and in-game obstacle courses, the activation resonated with Roblox’s young audience.  

Sport has always been a crucible for our values, but today it shapes our lives in a multitude of ways. Marketers need to track and be wise to these key shifts. It’s not about starting from scratch, it’s about leaning in, being inspired by the landscape’s evolution and creating stronger creative work that ultimately benefits sport as a whole.