Gen Z could transform sports – even the Super Bowl. But the NFL, NBA get us all wrong.


Sports unifies and defines cities. In a politically divided country, sports create a multi-generational and polyethnic space for people to create community.

In Detroit, some of our fondest memories are of our beloved teams – the Detroit Pistons’ 2004 NBA Championship, the Red Wings’ 2008 Stanley Cup, and this year, a National Championship win by the Michigan Wolverines football team and the deep playoff run by our Detroit Lions.

For my generation, Gen Z, consumption of sports through traditional channels is declining. This concerns sports executives. Without fans, sport leagues’ business models don’t work.

Detroit Lions linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin (42) celebrates a play by linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (44) during the second half vs. the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023.

Detroit Lions linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin (42) celebrates a play by linebacker Malcolm Rodriguez (44) during the second half vs. the Atlanta Falcons at Ford Field, Sunday, Sept. 24, 2023.

But understanding Gen Z’s relationship to sports isn’t as simple as measuring the number of fans in face paint, ticket sales, jersey sales and traditional viewership.

To really examine my generation’s sports interest, sports leagues must change the way they measure fandom – and adjust to Gen Z and the internet.

The numbers aren’t as simple as we make them

Gen Z can’t afford to watch sports. In a recent survey of 2,500 sports fans, 59% said they can’t afford sports content; 35% said accessing all the content they want from their favorite sports teams is too expensive. About 54% of millennials say they are more likely to pirate sports content than pay for a subscription.

With cable becoming less common and sports leagues slowly integrating streaming into their broadcasts, it’s getting harder to gather for Sunday watch parties.

Did NFL rig the Super Bowl? Did liberals put Taylor Swift and pro-vaccine Travis Kelce in the Super Bowl? Yes, we did.

But Gen Z does watch sports

Gen Z interacts with sports in different ways than previous generations. We are watching less TV, but we’re consuming a lot of sports content on social media.

In spaces where Zoomers dominate, like TikTok, the MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL have over 43 million followers collectively, accounting for 4.3% of TikTok’s one billion users.

The problem isn’t that Gen Z lacks interest in sports, it’s in the mediums by which they are measured.

The cultural disconnect

Gen Z is on track to be the most diverse and educated generation we have ever seen. With this comes a better understanding of social issues, and wanting the content we consume to reflect our ideas and values. Gen Z wants to see ourselves in sports, and that’s where the disconnect lies.

Sports leagues have issues to work through when providing an equitable and inclusive space for the most diverse generation, both in management and for the players in their leagues.

Gen Z doesn’t care about sports. That’s part of a bigger problem.

In 2022, the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sports reported a summary of demographics within the NCAA Division One Football Bowl Subdivision: While 65.7% of college football student athletes identified as players of color, 78.6% of chancellors and presidents, 77.1% of athletic directors and 80% of conference commissioners identified as white. Additionally, white men hold 72.5% of the 131 athletic director roles at FBS schools.

In MLB in 2023, an annual survey conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida found that the number of Black players hit its lowest average since 1991, when the institute began tracking league diversity, and 18% of players were Black. Black players represented 6.2% of players on opening day rosters, USA Today reported last summer.

Not only is it important for spaces to reflect the majority of people who are impacted by organizational decisions, it is imperative that spaces are diverse in thought, and demonstrate that different opinions are valued.

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What NFL, NASCAR are doing to attract Gen Z

Leagues are attempting to be more inclusive, launching multiple efforts to create an environment Gen Z identifies with. The NFL has multiple Pride initiatives, including participating in the LA Pride Festival & Parade, partnering with the Trevor Project, a crisis support intervention for LGBTQ+ young people, and collaborating with the National Gay Flag Football League.

NASCAR’s Development Program focuses on drivers who are underrepresented, and from diverse backgrounds. The program allows for 15- to 22-year-olds who have substantial racing experience to become NASCAR drivers.

Taylor Swift isn’t ruining football: Taylor Swift simply being at NFL playoff games has made the sport better. Deal with it.

Almost 50% of NFL fans are women, and women are engaging with sports on social media platforms. Taylor Swift, dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, has drawn a massive audience of young women to some NFL games – the league has capitalized on Swift’s presence at Kelce’s games, issuing an “open invitation” to Gen Z and female fans, USA TODAY reported – but there has been pushback, with some fans saying that Swift and her female fans are ruining the game.

Jalen Williams, 2024 Opinion intern

Jalen Williams, 2024 Opinion intern

It’s not the monumental shift to a more inclusive, young and diverse fan base the leagues need to survive.

Leagues are trying. But to maintain the business model and cultural prominence of sports, they must change the ways they understand and measure fandom. That’s just the starting point. They also have to create a space where Gen Z can access content at reasonable costs – and feel included.

Jalen Williams is an opinion intern at the Detroit Free Press, where this column first published. Reach him at jawilliams1@freepress.com.

You can read diverse opinions from our Board of Contributors and other writers on the Opinion front page, on Twitter @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Does Gen Z like the NFL? Football’s disconnect comes from the league





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