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How the WNBA, DC United and HighlightHer are reaching Gen Z audiences

Gen Z remains a sought after but hard to retain demographic. DC United’s Danita Johnson, the WNBA’s Colie Edison and HighlightHer’s Arielle Chambers outline why being real, relatable and personal are key to engaging with a younger audience.

4 May 2023 Ed Dixon

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Most individuals working in the sports sector would be able to give you a description of Gen Z,  the catch-all term used to describe the generation born between the mid-to-late 1990s and early 2010s. Engaging with that audience, though, has proved to be a different challenge.

Various strategies have emerged in sport as rights holders, broadcasters and sponsors try to gain traction with Gen Z audiences, ranging from behind-the-scenes content and new competition formats to more purpose-driven messaging and influencer-led campaigns.

Those working closely with the Gen Z demographic have their own theories about what works and what doesn’t.

“You have to make it fun for this generation that has so much stimuli around them at all times,” says Arielle Chambers, founder of HighlightHer, Bleacher Report’s women’s sports-focused media platform, speaking at March’s SportsPro OTT Summit USA in New York.

“I love the storytelling aspect. I love former players being able to talk about the game like in a mini telecast. I love the fact that we do have streaming platforms that can pause and fast forward and rewind things and just be on demand more, especially when everything is so constantly fast paced. I love the social media aspect of it.

“But a lot of times, as professionals, we try to overcomplicate things. Everybody is interested in the quick hitting things too. So have those quick hitters as assets alongside the game.

“We have to [give] them something that draws them in and keeps them there.”

Arielle Chambers (left), Danita Johnson and Colie Edison at SportsPro OTT Summit USA

“With our Gen Z audiences, they don’t want to just be sold [to],” adds Danita Johnson, president of business operations at Major League Soccer’s (MLS) DC United.

“I think a lot of the [approach] with that audience has been trying to sell them something their parents or their grandparents engaged [with] in the same format.

“When we look at traditional sports, where’s the engagement for them? Where is it personalised? So how do we create personalised journeys, customisations, when it feels like it’s actually talking direct to them as individuals versus being grouped as just Gen Z?”

Authenticity is key for the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), whose editorial team includes those who fall into the Gen Z bracket, ensuring the league better reflects the people it is pursuing.

“I think it’s about speaking in a voice that’s going to resonate with your audience,” explains Colie Edison, the WNBA’s chief growth officer.

“We are the only women’s sports league that has our own OTT platform, WNBA League Pass, and we’re growing it to be the home of women’s basketball. We also have Athletes Unlimited, which just joined the platform.

“So when we do that, we’re saying we want to provide you with the content that you want in the way that you want it.”

Don’t treat social media as a sales tool

According to Johnson, more Gen Z users are leaving platforms like Facebook and Instagram because they are becoming “sales tools”. The flood of advertisements hampers the experience and discourages people from returning.

Emerging offerings such as Twitch, which encourages user interaction and is less ad heavy, have provided a tonic to Meta’s platforms. As well as seeking out fledgling social media platforms, Johnson says sports organisations should be prepared to explore other avenues.

“When it comes to Gen Z, it’s how do we use our own platforms, our own technology, such as our apps, or whether it’s through our streaming platforms, having opportunity to use that to engage in a different way,” she explains. “I think it does help to drive the engagement and really start to build rapport with that consumer.”

Chambers, meanwhile, believes that Gen Z is more likely to engage with brands who allow their influencers – whether they be athletes or celebrities from outside of sports – to communicate in a way that doesn’t appear forced or scripted.

“Even if it is a sold opportunity, clients I beg of you to allow creators or athletes, or whoever’s in front of the camera, to deliver the message as they wish,” she adds.

“We get so caught up in pushing things from a numbers standpoint instead of an interest standpoint. And that’s where we need to reshape the thinking when it comes to captivating an audience and keeping them there.

“Use language that will resonate with people. Make sure that you’re very intentional about the language that you do use. I can’t stress that enough because if it sounds too elevated it’s going to sound like a business pitch.”

Address social issues

Edison believes the WNBA is “rooted in values”, describing it as a “purpose-driven organisation”. That mission has encouraged blue-chip brands like AT&T, Deloitte, Google, Nike and US Bank to join the league’s Changemakers programme, which seeks to drive positive change.

The two-way collaboration sees the WNBA receive the usual commercial benefits on top of providing its five partners with diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) opportunities, as well as the chance to participate in community relation projects.

For Edison, Changemakers enables the league to position itself as a welcoming, inclusive organisation that already boasts a younger, more culturally diverse fanbase.

“That’s what Gen Z is connecting with,” she continues. “Something that is authentic and speaks to their values.”

The WNBA describes itself as a “purpose-driven organisation”

Look to athletes

Generally speaking, Gen Z is more inclined to follow a specific athlete or individual instead of a league or team. As a result, DC United are supportive of players building their profile because it allows the club to piggyback off of their success. Having worked for the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks, Johnson also believes that female athletes are more prepared to build their audience than men.

“They were very boisterous, whether it was about a cause, or anything that was going on, whether it was about clothes or fashion,” she says of her time at the Sparks. “I feel like in soccer, our guys are a lot more humble. It’s a different persona, you have some of these players that are really out there, so for us it’s actually encouraging them to go out there and use their voice more and be part of the conversation.”

At DC United, Johnson is working with players to improve their use of social media, getting them engaged in community events and giving them content they can post and share. All that, she hopes, will help the players and the club reach a younger fanbase.

The WNBA is also trying to ensure that its athletes are being promoted throughout the year, rather than only during the league’s season, which typically lasts about four months. That has led to the introduction of player marketing agreements, which allow a handful of players to make money from partnering with league-affiliated events during the offseason – rather than having to seek earning opportunities from playing abroad.

“It’s also leveraging their brands, helping them build their brand, and in turn that builds the brand of the league,” notes Edison.

DC United are encouraging their players to be more active on social media

You can’t bank on celebrities

“Gen Z doesn’t necessarily care about the celebrity like we think that they do,” asserts Chambers.

“They care about the people that move and shake on the grassroots level and cultivate an audience in an organic way and that represent the sport.”

For Chambers, it’s all about who “pushes the game forward”. That could be a YouTuber or streamer, not just an athlete. Paying a famous musician a hefty fee to perform at a game is not always the answer, either. Instead, teaming up with creators and influencers from different walks of life can be more beneficial because their passion cuts through.

Collaborating with internet personalities also opens up the potential for a variety of different activations. In the WNBA’s case, this has included a crossover with South African street artist and graphic designer Karabo Poppy to create custom league-themed hoodies. Edison says this was a hit with fans and formed part of the WNBA’s goal to “sit at that intersection of lifestyle, culture and sport”.

“For the WNBA, it’s about deep engagement versus a shallow wide reach,” she continues. “Ultimately, we do want to fill the funnel and bring more fans in. But we know that it’s the creators, it’s the influencers who are going to drive the increase of traffic into our owned and operated sites and, ultimately, into watching the game.”

Indeed, Johnson says that DC United are looking at the “top 35 creators” in the franchise’s home market to work alongside so that they can leverage their following.

The suggestion is that Gen Z is less interested in the aspirational celebrity lifestyle. A more personal, attainable relationship hits the mark better, particularly amongst women and girls.

“People want that relationship like ‘I see you as my best friend’,” says Chambers. “They want that moment where it’s ‘I can be friends with her’ instead of ‘I want her life’.

Gen Z audiences favour a more personal and attainable relationship with athletes

Be raw and real

Scripted, overproduced content will only get you so far with Gen Z. Any output needs to be organic. As a result, videos and imagery that haven’t been extensively edited can sometimes land better if the message and sentiment is on point. Candid, revealing moments also work well.

“My most engaging video from the WNBA Finals was A’ja Wilson with the trophy in front of her and she’s dancing,” says Chambers.

“That’s something that the fan couldn’t get. But I was there, so I was able to get that moment that nobody else could get and put it online. Because she’s so fun, because she’s so animated, people were like ‘yes, go best friend’. It was really, really cute and it did numbers.”

“With this generation, it’s about creating FOMO [fear of missing out],” Edison points out.

“But we see that they want social badge worthy moments. It’s not about what designer they’re carrying or how much they spent on something. It’s more their social clout that we can see that they invest in.”

Create a safe space

Chambers says that many Gen Z women “don’t feel safe” when they go on sports platforms. She is also frustrated that people underestimate their ability to “digest sporting events”. If more isn’t done to combat these shortcomings, then younger women will only feel even more alienated.

For Chambers, the sports organisations that succeed with Gen Z will be those that best represent that demographic’s values.

“Hire people that are reflective of the culture that you’re trying to appeal to,” she continues. “If you walk into the WNBA office, you see Gen Z representation, you see women of colour there, you see people who are exactly who you’re trying to appeal to.

“You cannot reach an audience in an authentic way if you don’t have any representation in your office of who you’re trying to talk to.”

Sports organisations can reach Gen Z by better representing the demographic’s values

Johnson adds: “One of the things that we’ve been really intentional about is creating a safe environment within the supporter stands for our female supporters. How we are making sure that they’re safe, making sure that they’re engaged, is a key thing for us.

“If you’ve ever [sat] in the supporter section [it] gets very rowdy. So one of the things that we look at, outside of our traditional overall female engagement, is very specific to that supporter culture because that’s where you really get your rabid fans from right there.

“How we continue to uplift and engage with our women there is really important for us so that we can continue to add more women into the fold.”

Access to women’s sport is key

It’s also worth pointing out that Gen Z has been growing up at a time when interest in women’s sport is growing, largely because female athletes and competitions are finally benefitting from improved media coverage and exposure.

The challenge now is to ensure that those new, untapped audiences are retained.

“What needs to happen is that we need to get girls playing more sports,” says Edison. “I think it always starts at the grassroots level. We’re seeing the participation levels start to taper off. So if we can start young it’ll grow our fandom.”

Despite the positive steps that have been taken, more media exposure is also essential, according to Johnson.

“Having the place and destination to go and watch are so important for the growth of any sport, whether that’s MLS or WNBA,” she says. “So I think how we continue to leverage that is going to be critical for the future success and opportunity for people just to watch and enjoy the sport.”

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