15 April 2021 - 8:01 PM



Special report: Generation Z – the young fans who are switching off

  • 42 per cent of 13-23 year olds have no interest in sport, versus 25 per cent in other age groups.
  • Formula 1 has gained nearly 60 million new 16-25 year old fans during lockdown due to digital media and streaming strategies.
  • Leading football executives and broadcasters express concerns at switch off among young people.
  • “We have a real concern about how football is losing its grip and losing its salience a little bit. We need to do all we can, all we can to address that and put it back at the centre of attention for the younger generation.”
  • Generation Z frustrated that traditional sports are overloaded with marketing messages: 55 per cent said they watched highlights to avoid ads.

Is football facing a silent but looming threat that threatens the long-term future of its financial ecosystem? A ticking timebomb that the game complacently lingers towards? Could the past year be a harbinger of an even direr future for the game: not just empty stadiums, but games broadcast to ever-diminishing audiences?

The Covid-19 crisis has understandably dominated most discourse around the game’s future the past 15 months, but a secondary debate has also been developing among the game’s leaders and key stakeholders. This is about an entire generation of supporters that are so disengaged with the game that they are not only not physically attending matches, but they aren’t even tuning in to broadcasts any more.

Speaking at the FT’s Business of Football Summit in February, Eurosport’s head of sport, Andrew Georgiou revealed the extent of the crisis football may be sleepwalking towards: significantly higher numbers of young people entirely disengaged from sport, compared to those in older age demographics. It is, he says, “a young demographic that is saying they're not interested in sport at all.”

They are not interested

“I start to get a little bit worried at a fundamental level when I look at the audience data that we review about the level of interest of young audiences to sport as a general proposition and football in particular,” he said.

“Our research shows 42 percent of people between 13 and 23 are saying that they're not interested in sport at all, which is an increase from twenty five percent of those over 18.”

Georgiou suggested that sport in general needed to take a fundamental look at itself and suggested that the “value proposition” of live sport and the way broadcasters showed it was even helping feed piracy. Broadcasters and rights owners had a duty, he suggested “to make sure we get it to them in a way that they're happy to pay for.” 

Does football need to worry?

Ever rising TV rights have fuelled thirty years of continual economic growth for the game, but recent rights deals have suggested a plateauing of value across the sport. Recent European football rights growth – where it has existed at all – has been driven by overseas rights deals. The collapse of several of these contracts when foreign broadcasters have been unable to monetise them have demonstrated the growing fragility of the traditional broadcast model.

Indeed, the cries of “cut the cord” have resonated across North America and into Europe. Younger, increasingly digital savvy and cost conscious fans are not interested in traditional Pay TV subscriptions, or even viewing someone else’s.  2018 research by Whistle Sports on the North American market found Generation Z men - aged 13 to 21 – being frustrated that traditional sports were overloaded with marketing messages: 55 per cent said they watched highlights to avoid ads, compared to 45 per cent who watch full games. Tellingly it found fifty-two percent of Gen Z males spent more time following non-traditional sports than traditional sports, such as football.

Data from the Nielsen Fan Insights 2019 study across eight different markets (China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, the UK and the US) built on this research and revealed that those aged 16-24 prefer shorter, “snackable” content and, from a sporting standpoint, were less inclined to watch entire games.

Neilsen’s research also showed shows Gen Z consumers are not averse to paying for premium content, but increasingly expecting a tailored value proposition – “that is, they want to be able to pay purely for what they want, where and when, and without any long-term contractual commitment.”

Many years left

Despite this, Claire Enders, founder of the eponymous market analysts, Enders Analysis, told the same panel as Georgiou that the end was not nigh for the traditional Pay-TV model. The average age of Pay-TV subscribers is 50, meaning those consumers “have a lot of years ahead of them [to] really enjoy the product in the exact way that it is served today.” In other words, broadcasters – and rights owners - have a long time of revenue collection left.

On the other hand, she said, young customers “will not commit to something that they know will show up in a pirated form somewhere else or that is in a different small form.”

“Dare I say it, sports is gone the way of golf, as I predicted it would because of this inflation. It has gone much, much older in terms of long term commitment.”

Losing its salience

Charlie Marshall, the CEO of the European Club Association, took up the same theme at the FT summit. He said that the younger generation were “a particular concern”.

“We have a real concern about how football is losing its grip and losing its salience a little bit,” he said.

“We need to do all we can, all we can to address that and put it back at the centre of attention for the younger generation.”

Marshall is at the forefront of changing the nature of European club competition, with the likelihood that there will be a significant number of additional Champions League games from 2024 after ECA backed reforms kick in. UEFA and the ECA seem set on creating more blockbuster games between the continent’s bigger teams to, in the words of Marshall, bring the Champions League to “higher and higher and places within not just world sport, but in world entertainment.”

“We talk about the products. We do talk about the product meeting the competition, how it looks, how it engages with fans, how it's distributed, how it's commercialised,” he said.

“And we see a bigger picture: we see that football itself, shouldn't be focussing too inward at this point in time. We really should be thinking about what kind of a world we're going into, what does define of the future look like?”

15 minute subscriptions?

Speaking to reporters last month, the Juventus and ECA chairman Andrea Agnelli also took  up Marshall’s theme, describing the “changing nature of supporters” as a “concern”, but he suggested that the malaise went deeper.

“I have the privilege of having five kids, but I don't think either one of them has ever sat next to me for 90 minutes when I was watching the game,” he admitted.

“So it is something that needs to be addressed. NBA is doing that quite well. You can just have a subscription for highlights. You just get a highlight as soon as something happened. At the moment, the NBA is offering us a subscription for the last quarter. We could imagine a subscription for the last 15 minutes of a specific game and is something that evidently will have to try and address, because the attention span of today's kids and tomorrow's spenders, it's completely different than the one I have had when I was their age.”

Agnelli pointed to golf and downhill skiing as examples where the conclusion of the events were the only real moments of interest, unless you were in the “hardcore” – in which case you’d probably be there in person.

“I think we will need to find new ways of engaging with the younger generations going forward, provided that games, as far as I can see at the moment… They will be of 90 minutes.”

Cool promotional videos

Sportradar’s digital chief Reiner Geier says advances in technology, particularly OTT, can help leagues and governing bodies adopt and personalise their content in ways that traditional broadcasters cannot.

“The younger generation has a completely [different] behaviour in consuming sports, meaning it happens most likely on the mobile devices, much shorter content is needed there. And also personalisation is needed, especially for the younger generation,” he told

“I think also the traditional broadcasters have to adapt their models. And that's also what currently happens. For instance, in Germany, Austria, where we have Sky, they have already adapted the products and said, "OK,four years ago you only were able to acquire a two or three year package, but today you can even just buy a subscription for one match".

Geier told me about his teenage son, who had embraced Formula 1 having been hooked by “cool promotional videos on Tik-Tok and Instagram”. This interest developed by Netflix’s Drive to Survive series. The end result was that he has started watching F1 races in full this season, despite his father acknowledging that he would probably never buy a subscription package himself.

F1 had gained his son as a consumer by talking direct to him via mediums he used. “This is definitely a trend which will exist going forward,” he said.

Drive to succeed

It is salient that Geier mentioned Formula 1 for that is the sport many working in digital are scrutinising closely at the moment.

When private equity group, Liberty Media, took the wheel of F1 in January 2017 after completing an $8 billion purchase, one of its missions was to attract new fans to a sporting asset whose demographic was predominantly ageing and white and male. To do so it would tap into its underutilised digital assets.

F1 had become enclosed behind pay tv paywalls, naturally shrinking its audience; but the new strategy transcended going back to free-to-air broadcasting. There was a significant overhaul of its social media output, and the sport harnessed streaming platforms like Netflix, on which it shows its wildly popular Drive to Survive series. In tandem with this it set up an F1 Esports series, which it complimented with driver and celebrity led virtual Grand Prix’s at the height of the pandemic.

Four years after the takeover research by Nielsen Sport shows 73 million new fans showed interest in F1 in the past year, despite the lockdown. Strikingly, most were young: 77 per cent of new fans were aged 16-35, an age bracket that now represents 46 per cent of F1’s fanbase.

The F1 example is one that football club executives are taking keen interest in. But there is an acknowledgement too that digital or a documentary on its own won’t be enough.

“Football needs to re-establish its connection”

The counterpoint to all this is that while TV money drives the game’s engine, it is match-going fans – along with the footballers of course – that drive the experience.

“Young people and families have already been ‘put off’ from attending games by ticket prices,” Ronan Evain, Fans Europe (FSE) told European Leagues Forum last month.

“That's the generational divide which needs to be addressed, not the attention span of the generation Z or other nonsense we’ve heard these last few days.”

“Football needs to re-establish its connection with the fans & wider society, not antagonise or replace them.”

“Football is not a product. It shouldn’t become a pale imitation of e-sport or US franchises. It should focus on its core values. But if some people continue to treat it like a product it will inevitably become one. Replaceable. Overthrown by a new, better product.”

Old and new

When interviewed the former Football League CEO Shaun Harvey last month about his advisory new role at Wrexham, he spoke of a body of potential fans in North Wales for his club that would traditionally have gravitated towards the Premier League giants of Merseyside or Manchester, but had been priced out of attending or put off by constantly shifting kick off times.

There was nothing wrong, he said, with being “everybody’s favourite club” and providing a home for fans who sought the traditional experience of a 3pm Saturday kick off and all its attendant pleasures – pre- and post-match pints, a programme, the halftime pie, catching up with friends; Saturday afternoons’ age old routines.

“What we need to be able to do is give them some reason to want to come and watch live football,” he said.

In tandem with this, of course, was a documentary the club are producing based around the ownership adventure of its high profile owners, the Hollywood duo Ryan Reynolds and Rob McIlhenney. Tradition would marry the digital age.

“We have two owners who have got a really, really significant personal back story, big social media presence. So it actually changes the narrative a little bit about what Wrexham football club is about and can actually make it more engaging to a younger audience, who have got more social aspects and social outlook than probably a traditional football model,” he said.

“The newness of what we're doing always helps. Success only enhances this. But doing it in a way where you're appealing to a different audience who might not have been a hardened football fan all the time, gives you another element to be able to work with to increase the size of the supporter base.

“The next generation of fans will be absolutely key to Wrexham's long term success because you only ever get new owners from Hollywood once. It doesn't happen twice. So if we don't capitalise on it now for the future, you know, we'll be actually doing this club a disservice going forward."