The laZy generation

Multiple reports and studies — each one with its own agenda — have been warning that sports industry has a Gen Z problem. The “problem” part is real, but they’re blaming the wrong player

Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens (2014) and Homo Deus (2016) are two of the best non-fiction books of the last decade. Or, at least, two the best “brainy” books of the decade, as The Guardian weirdly put it. Among the many paths taken in Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, one of the most unmistakable turns highlights the importance of reformatting our temporal perception when it comes to interpreting the future. Harari wants the reader to fathom “the history of tomorrow” from a less parochial approach and to dive headfirst into his broader perspective. A daunting task, by my estimates.

Here’s one of his yardsticks: “If you speak with the experts, many of them will tell you that we are still very far away from genetically engineered babies or human-level artificial intelligence. But most experts think on a timescale of academic grants and college jobs. Hence, ‘very far away’ may mean twenty years, and ‘never’ may denote no more than fifty.”

In recent years — in the past two years, more precisely — marketing and research agencies have ramped up the production of studies on the relationship between the new generation of consumers with the sports industry. They also presented some combination of surveys to speculate about sporting events, broadcasting, and products based on this “new context” — aka their interpretation of “the future” of this business.

While a bunch of these studies flopped due to the lack of parameters and others moved towards the field of contradiction, some of them do offer a few interesting numbers. One of the most popular reports (especially because of a Mark Cuban tweet) says, for example, that only 53% of Gen Z identify themselves “as sports fans, compared to 69% of millennials.” It also states that this generation is “half as likely as millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch.”

Is any of that actually true? Don’t look at me, I have no idea.

But I know this much: a considerable part of sports organizations and their respective commercial branches have detected a real drop in audience of some sports and events. That led to widespread concern, not because of fans, obviously, but because of money: combined with the last pandemic year, several commercial and broadcasting rights contracts were suddenly broken up, causing a moderate panic among rights holders.

In addition, there are new players in this market. Big companies that never had any affiliation with sports broadcasting, such as Facebook and Amazon, joined the game, even without knowing for sure what they were doing (that hasn’t changed, they still don’t). Simultaneously, other competitors decided to embrace the streaming hype to embark in the broadcasting market — from startups to legacy companies, from powerful associations to small organizations. It’s the subscription wars we all know, but in a casual sporty dress code.

These two main factors (less money, more actors) revealed the existence of a gap in the sports broadcasting industry that a lot of people say they know how to fill in but, deep down, they don’t. And whenever a deficiency like this is exposed, the response is usually the same: to produce the most credible dossier possible that, if distorted wisely, has the power to manufacture almost any conclusion. And that’s how the “Gen Z hates sports” storyline was born.

This is a typical behavior from another generation — one that has nothing to do with age —, the not-my-fault generation. By quickly concluding that “Gen Z hates sports,” there’s no need to dig any further. Since there’s no failure, there’s also no one to blame. This type of verdict avoids a real debate on how sports are being managed, presented, and distributed — which are the three key pillars of this industry. Moreover, it clears the path to a needless follow-up report, usually a set of derailed theories crafted to sell… more research.

But if all these surveys and studies have a (not so) hidden motive, what is it really possible to detect in this behavior shift, if anything?

The decline in interest for some sports is real: the new Valentino Rossis and Chris Froomes will have a harder time earning their fans than the originals. The way sports are consumed has also changed — and that can’t be a surprise, it happened in other businesses such as music, movie, software, news… it wouldn’t be different with the sports industry. That claptrap that says “sports fans don’t change because they’re traditional” is just another myth that mediocre professionals have been telling their bosses and themselves for the last two decades. Raise your skeptical left eyebrow if you already heard that sentence.

But the thing is, the real lazy generation doesn’t seem to care. In the vast majority of cases, the packaging for sports broadcasting is the same one that has been in use for half a century (and some media companies use the same staff as half a century ago). They’re offering the same product presentation, the same ideas and even the same dudes from the 1970’s. Don’t shoot the messenger to the tune of Hotel California, but reframing the sports broadcasting in 2021 requires much more than reading Twitter comments during a football match or creating an online vote to elect the best driver in a race.

Let’s face it: if your broadcasting strategy today is similar to the one you use to have when TV upgraded from black and white to color transmission, it can’t be a shock that people started losing interest in what you’re showing.

This is probably a generation that doesn’t go for the same sports you do, and it’s definitely a generation that doesn’t prize the way sports events are being presented as you are used to. Claiming that Gen Z doesn’t like any sports at all is just a big leap into nonsense.

The universal appeal for sports activities goes beyond age, geographic, and temporal boundaries. Fights, races, and team competitions are paradigms that won’t abandon human nature anytime soon, let alone an isolated generation from the beginning of the century (they’re not that special). The mortifying irony is, these paradigms have been transforming exactly at the beginning of this century: surfing, skateboarding and 3x3 basketball were selected as new Olympic sports, mixed martial arts became a billionaire business in less than 10 years, and eSports left the basements of the world to take over a massive 900-million-dollar market.

That’s not something new. During the ancient Olympic Games (700 B.C.), chariot races were incredibly popular; and in the first modern Olympics, 120 years ago, tug-of-war was a blast. As insane as it may sound today, the truth is, no one can guarantee that football will continue to be the most popular sport in the world 120 years from now.

This inability to understand sports in a macro perspective — sometimes purposeful and sponsored, sometimes driven only by ignorance — happens because, as in the example of Homo Deus, most people have a temporal orbit that can only be measured in “myself years.” It’s a sense of time that revolves around how long my academic grant lasts, how long I still have in this field of work, how long until I leave this job to build a startup.

And for those who can only think on a timescale of “myself years,” the inevitable “game over” cliché is accurate: the sports industry has an actual problem, a lazy generation one. The drama is, those studies and reports produced by these same people will never be able to diagnose the problem correctly, let alone solve it.

Two decades of hardcore journalism in a past life; now Digital Media PhD candidate @ University of Porto, coffee taster and vinyl aficionado

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