On February 13th, America’s City of Angels welcomed America’s finest athletes for Super Bowl LVI , Los Angeles’s first since 1993. Almost everyone in the USA was watching, all envious of the fans witnessing an L.A. Rams victory inside their shiny new home stadium. But this year, it wasn’t just fans throughout America seething with jealousy. Across the pond, a hefty UK faction of Generation Z (16–24-year-olds) were too.
In 2021, FleishmanHillard’s Sports and Entertainment team partnered with sister agency, BlueCurrent Group, to survey 1,000 British Gen Zs on their sporting preferences. The survey reported that 46% of British Gen Z watch football, 21% watch boxing, 14% watch tennis, 10% watch cricket and 9% watch rugby. The results are unsurprising: these sports have remained cultural cornerstones in the UK since the late 1800s.
However, the survey also revealed that 15% of British Gen Z watch basketball and 10% watch American football. 5% even regularly watch baseball. It was only in 2007 that the UK hosted its first NFL (National Football League) game and the NBA held its first in 2011. Somehow, in less than fifteen years, American sports have managed to usurp Britain’s youngest generation of sports lovers. How did this happen, and with such speed?
The Impact of Globalisation
Ultimately, it was inevitable that Britain’s faction of Generation Z would gobble up traditional American sports like a pack of hungry Labradors, particularly in the increasingly global, influencer-based, sensory-addicted society we’ve grown accustomed to. American sports, with their intrinsic, unapologetic commercialisation, have always held this advantage.
In years previous, stubborn Anglophiles were quick to dismiss the NFL and NBA as highlight fodder catering to the attention-deprived younger generation. That may, in some superficial ways, be true. 70% of British Gen Z prefer to watch quick pace-of-play sports, while 48% prefer to watch quick highlights of games. But many critics fail to recognise the power of the commercialised sporting landscape in the United States, and how it has been honed and crafted over decades. With the rise of social media, globalised streaming services, and an invasive influencer culture, there is nowhere for British Gen Z to hide. Adversely, would they even want to?
The Impact of the Athlete
With a global sports media streaming everything, anywhere, at any time; a relentlessly crowded US sporting calendar, and mobile notifications galore, keeping aligned with any sport is easier than ever. When fans aren’t watching live, they’ll see their favourite athletes featuring in adverts, on billboards, on their Instagram feed, or even at the cinema. Avoiding the athlete is like avoiding COVID before Christmas – near-impossible.
But as with everyone, Gen Z are choosing to engage; BlueCurrent’s research highlighted that 37% of British Gen Z follow athletes to stay updated on sports and culture, the same percentage as news media. Aside from footballers, the world’s most famous and followed athletes are the likes of Lebron James (NBA) and Pat Mahomes (NFL). For decades, UK youth have obsessed over Hollywood and its glossy celebrities. Borderless intrigue thanks to commercial platform supported by 330 million people sets anyone up for ubiquity. But the modern-day superstar, or rather, the super-influencer, is no longer the actor or the musical artist. It is the athlete.
The Impact of Spectacle
Combined with virtual platforms, the USA has another advantage. Sports aren’t just about the result, they’re about the spectacle surrounding it. In a time when overwhelming the senses is necessary, America has always held the secret formula. Rapid plays from rapid athletes; commentators that evoke memories of great American heroes; half time shows with A-listers; multi-million-dollar adverts; pre and post-game tailgates; excess in unadulterated amounts.
For those that don’t watch sport – notably, 20% of British Gen Z – becoming absorbed in an NFL or NBA game is easier than cricket or rugby. So, what can UK sports stakeholders learn from our transatlantic counterparts? Or, gloomily, is it too late? Rugby X and Rugby Sevens have prioritised an increasingly commercial outlook, English cricket started the Twenty20 engine but missed the ride on the profit boat, and the Hundred, at least, is giving it a good old go. But in 2022, everything is a game of attention, a game of gripping every synapse possible. And America – with their spectacular sports and omnipresent athletes – will always win against Britain’s relatively reserved sporting events, particularly with Gen Z.
The Impact of America
This means burgeoning UK support for decades, Super Bowls swapping Washington for Wembley, franchises moving from Tennessee to Tottenham. Last month, the NFL announced the International Home Marketing Areas initiative, a scheme inviting teams to target international markets, notably the UK. Now, six franchises, including the Jacksonville Jaguars, are vying for the attention of its sport’s fast-growing fanbase with events, sponsorships, and merchandise sales.
Us Brits may never utter that dreaded word, soccer, but potential rugby fanatics may switch allegiances to its long-lost, forward-passing American cousin. Perhaps our children will swap stumps with bases, cover drives with three-pointers, cucumber sandwiches with £10 hot dogs. Ultimately, the US sporting tidal wave will not slow. It will only accelerate, sweeping Gen Z and future generations in its wake.
Charlie Kitcat – Sports and Entertainment team
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November 20, 2023
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