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With another NFL season already here, social media is going to be a core part of how the league markets itself to young members of Generation Z. This includes a new “social-first” approach to social media, in which the NFL creates content specifically designed for the world of social media. It also includes new experimentation with a range of new technological platforms, ranging from online gaming to virtual reality and the metaverse.
The waning of popularity of live sports
This season, more so than at any time in the past, there is a real sense of urgency in connecting with young members of Generation Z (defined as people born between 1997 and 2009). This is the generation that grew up social media, online gaming, and time spent alone exploring online worlds. According to a recent survey from Morning Consult, for example, members of Generation Z are only half as likely as Millennials to watch live sports. And they are even less likely to play youth football and have a real passion for the game.
You can blame a number of factors from this. Some blame the pandemic and the new emphasis on social isolation for a lack of willingness to get out there and play football. Some blame the diminishing attention span of kids, which is no longer enough to watch a full three-hour TV football game.
The real culprit, though, is the fact that video games and time spent online in virtual worlds is more interesting and alluring to young kids. This may be over-generalizing things, but kids get more of a dopamine rush fighting imaginary dragons online with imaginary avatar creations than they do listening to a bunch of adults describe to them what’s happening on a football field. The amount of real action on a football field, while exciting when it does happen, just doesn’t happen fast enough for kids.
Social media counter-offensive
With that in mind, the NFL is launching a social media counter-offensive to regain these potential fans. After all, as some NFL watchers have pointed out, if the league doesn’t grab these fans by the age of 18, then they will never grab them. So they are launching a number of fascinating social media experiments. For example, they are partnering with TikTok social media influencers, who show up at NFL games and record all the interesting things happening around them. These influencers usually single out things like funny on-field dialogue between players, coaches and referees that will make for a viral hit on social media.
They are also exploring how they can convince the video gaming generation to transfer all of this enthusiasm around playing video game versions of NFL football to actually developing a love for the action in real-life. The NBA, for example, has had tremendous success in fostering leagues of professional gamers, with each team supported by a real-world NBA basketball team.
And there are also plans to expand into the metaverse, with collaborations around new kinds of digital assets, digital avatars, and digital worlds. For example, kids a generation ago might have collected bubble gum cards of their favorite players. Today’s kids collect digital NFTs and store them in the digital wallets on their phones. Kids a generation ago might have put on the jersey of their favorite team and actually gone to a real game. Kids today buy digital jerseys for their online avatars, who attend virtual events in virtual renditions of team stadiums.
In short, the NFL can no longer rest on its laurels. It did a fantastic job reaching out to under-served communities in some of the nation’s toughest towns. It expanded internationally, in order to make NFL football a global game. And it made football a nearly nightly event during the season, in order to hold onto fans past Sunday. But its toughest test is yet to come: convincing the typical headphone-wearing, mobile phone-toting teenage kid to make football a core part of their young lives when they have so many other options.