How Brands Can Engage & Nurture the Sports Fans of the Future 

We sat down with MarketCast's Aaron Thomas and T-Mobile's Marie Woods to discuss how brands can engage & nurture the next generation of fans with sports fandom.
  • November 11, 2022

It’s been a few weeks since we took the stage at this year’s Sports Business Journal (SBJ) World Congress of Sports conference in New York. Surrounded by some of the biggest names in the world of sports (including the MLB and NHL commissioners), we set out to answer a question that’s top of mind for many in the industry: can sports leagues and supporting brands still count on young fans showing up amid a world of seemingly endless entertainment choices?

MarketCast’s SVP of Brands and Partnerships, Danielle Byrd, was joined on stage by Aaron Thomas, VP of Qualitative Research at MarketCast, and Marie Woods, Senior Manager of Sports Sponsorship at T-Mobile, to share their knowledge and perspectives from both a research and sponsorship standpoint. Here’s what we learned from them:

Parents play a key role in growing sports fandom among their kids.

Unlike fandoms for gaming or music genres, a love of sports is typically passed down from generation to generation. If a parent played a sport or is loyal to a specific team, their passion is often passed down to their children. Similarly, if the parent is from a particular part of the country, like New York or Boston, fandom for those local teams is instilled in their kids.  

Growing sports participation is also critical to cultivating younger fandom. “We’ve seen a correlation between kids who play sports, even for a short period of time in their childhood, and a fandom that stretches into adulthood,” said Woods. “Getting more kids in the game is definitely a focus area for T-Mobile and how we activate our Little League partnership.” 

Before they can nurture fans of the future, brands must first understand all their passions and interests.

According to MarketCast’s Thomas, rather than being fans of one passion, young people today spread their fandom across many different interests on a more casual and passive basis. MarketCast calls this the “Youth Fandom Web.” In addition, because of younger fans’ technological fluency, they can quickly skim across many interests and passion areas compared to prior generations, which tended to be focused on just a few fandoms. 

On the surface, it can appear we are facing new generations of young fans who are not as passionate about sports, leading to the prospect of future adult fans who will spend less on sports and the brands that support them. However, both Woods and Thomas see this as a massive opportunity to nurture today’s passive and casual fans, transforming them into a new generation of future sports fans.

We can learn from other forms of entertainment to capture younger audiences and new fans. 

Fandom spaces such as K-Pop (Korean pop music) are very welcoming to young people. By contrast, sports can be more challenging for younger people to get involved in because there is often judgment about how much they know, how long they’ve been a fan, or even their abilities to play and participate. 

Anonymity can breed confidence among young people, especially in gaming communities, which are easy to access and up-level skills. In addition, K-Pop and gaming communities interact almost exclusively in a digital world, making it a lot easier to engage in versus participating in youth sports. 

According to Thomas, sports leagues and brands are doubling down their efforts in areas like e-sports and online gaming communities to engage the new generation of fans. For example, NBA 2k23 and FIFA video games have captured that younger audience over the years and helped them learn at their own pace at home and build affinity towards the real NBA and professional football (soccer) teams, players, and brands. 

In addition, the massive increase in young fandom following the release of Formula 1’s Drive to Survive on Netflix is an excellent example of not changing a sport, but finding a platform to tell stories that attract younger fans. Motorsports may not be the first thing to come to mind when picturing a young fan base, but if you find the right story and tell it in an authentic way, it is more likely to break through with fans. 

Use research and big data to determine how your sports sponsorships are performing with young fans. 

When considering how to measure sports sponsorship impact with young people, it’s critical to look at how the partnership is performing as a whole and how specific components of your sponsor activation are impacting the specific KPIs brands have identified. 

According to Woods, T-Mobile experienced a distinct halo effect on their KPIs for those aware of the brand’s efforts around their Little League Call Up Grant program, which helps families in need by covering registration fees associated with their kid’s local Little League programs. Beyond the more obvious impacts on brand affinity, they saw improved perceptions about T-Mobile’s network leadership and performance. Woods believes this is a great example of how opening consumers’ minds to your brand can allow them to absorb your other messages in the marketplace better.

To learn more about how MarketCast can deploy big data and primary research to engage your brand’s fandom with younger fans, contact us!

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