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Adam Minter: The NFL needs more than Taylor Swift to win Gen Z

By Adam Minter Bloomberg Opinion

On Sunday afternoon, I sat in US Bank Stadium in Minneapolis to watch the Kansas City Chiefs battle the Minnesota Vikings. Behind me, a couple wondered whether Taylor Swift, who had attended the last two Kansas City games, had decided to attend this one, too. In front of me, I could see a couple leaning over a phone, looking at search results for “Taylor Swift Minneapolis.”

It wasn’t just ticketholders who were disappointed when she didn’t show up. For the two preceding weeks, Swift contributed to a big boost in the teen girls and young women watching on their televisions. Now, it’s back to reality and a customer acquisition problem that challenges all major American sports leagues: Generation Z, born between the mid-1990s and the early 2010s, just isn’t that into sports.

The long-term economic and cultural impact of that indifference is big. Athletes and traditional team sports remain cultural unifiers, among the few figures and activities still capable of transcending social and demographic boundaries. As a result, they generate a lot of money. For example, according to one estimate, the global market for licensed sports merchandise, such as team jerseys, was worth $33.5 billion in 2022. For fan-based businesses like the NFL, any sign that young people are less interested than their parents and grandparents in tuning in game after game in those jerseys is an existential challenge.

Historically, leagues didn’t worry much about the transmission of passion for a sport and team. Homes typically had one screen — the family television — and if a parent was watching the Chiefs game, so were the kids. Fandom at home drove fandom outside of it. Kids wore NFL merchandise to school and bonded with their classmates. Youth sports participation, partly inspired by what was on TV, amplified the community solidarity and enthusiasm for all levels of a given sport.

Those traditional forms of fan development are breaking down. “We’ve evolved to this situation where kids are getting their content via the smartphone and everyone going off to their corner,” explains Michael Lewis, director of the marketing analytics center at Emory University. The consequences are striking. In 2021, Lewis published data on sports fandom among different generations. Millennials overwhelmingly identified themselves as the most avid fans (42%), followed by Gen X and Baby Boomers. Gen Z was a striking outlier. Though 23% identified themselves as passionate spectators, 27% identified themselves as “anti-sports.” No other generation came close to that level of sports antipathy.

However, Gen Z isn’t uninterested in competition. Rather, its media consumption habits are pushing it to different outlets. Survey data that Lewis published in August reveals that esports (competitive video gaming) is now more popular than traditional sports.

None of this is unknown to the American sports industry. For the last several years, leagues have committed to meet fans where they are.

More often than not, that means reaching out to young people on social media. The NFL hires Gen Z content creators and relies, in part, on the creative talents of its Gen Z players. For example, in June, long before Swift started turning up at NFL games, the Cincinnati Bengals notched more than 750,000 likes for a TikTok video in which player Orlando Brown Jr. asked his teammates about their favorite Swift song.

As of August, 23 NFL teams each had 1 million followers or more on the social media platform.

Yet despite these efforts, Gen Z still lags behind prior generations when it comes to sports fandom.

So when Swift started showing up for games, it was understandable that the NFL and its broadcast partners would embrace the appearance as a “pop cultural moment.” Ratings spiked for the games she attended, fueled by no fewer than 17 live camera shots of the star in her luxury box at last week’s Chiefs-Jets game. Yet, as the NFL surely knows, not even a global singing sensation can turn Gen Z’s screen-loving anti-sports individualists into face-painting Chiefs fans. At best, she gives the NFL a chance to audition for the attention of skeptics and non-fans.

Her presence and undefined relationship with Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce surely sold a few extra Chiefs jerseys over the last several weeks. But if the NFL and other leagues are interested in the long-term growth of their fanbase and its connection to the community, they’ll need to do more than rely upon celebrity pop-ups.

One way to do this is to tap into the marketing prowess of Gen Z athletes who are already a significant presence in the league. They understand the target demographic better than the NFL suits ever will, as Orlando Brown Jr.’s Swift video showed this summer.

For the NFL, there’s a risk that younger athletes will embrace the sort of activism the league has tried to turn away from in the past - the kind that polling suggests Gen Z expects from its athletes. But if the goal is to secure the long-term future of the football business, the NFL will have to reconcile itself to a form of fandom that embraces individual athletes and their causes, as well as a specific team.

Will it be enough to counteract Gen Z’s generational ambivalence? The NFL better hope so because, as of this weekend, Taylor Swift has proven she’s ready to do something else with her Sundays.

Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering the business of sports. He is the author, most recently, of “Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale.”