The N.F.L. teamed with the gamer Ninja. Major League Baseball recruited influencers to produce TikTok content for the World Series under the hashtag #mlbcreatorclass. The N.B.A. co-founded the professional NBA 2K e-sports league and tied it to individual franchises.
Voilà! The Charlotte Hornets help bankroll Hornets Venom G.T.
The leagues’ marketing officers share a philosophy: Meet young fans where they are. That means using digital tools like Snapchat, Twitch, YouTube and TikTok as a way to get teenagers to engage with their sports and tune into games wherever they’re shown. The leagues have become fluent in the jargon of digital media and say the digital platforms attract billions of views and likes.
If you want to make rabid fans out of Generation Z, as those born from 1997 to 2012 are often defined, it is no longer hip to be square.
For the major sports leagues, attracting young audiences is a matter of survival. Whether the leagues like it or not, American society has crossed a Rubicon that imperils the business of traditional sports. For the first time, children ages 12 to 17 place a higher priority on being alone or spending time online rather than hanging out with friends or family, let alone tossing a baseball or shooting hoops in the driveway, according to SSRS/Luker on Trends, which conducts regular surveys about sports and society.
Rich Luker, a social psychologist who has tracked trends in sports for 30 years, said children 10 and under today are having “the first unattainable childhood,” meaning that parents, teachers and other adults are unable to reach them if they’re not also online.
“It’s much more about what they do for amusement and free time than it is about personal engagement, community engagement or engagement with friends or family,” Luker said.
That is scary to the leagues, which for generations have relied on parents passing along their love of sports to their sons and daughters, and on children being hooked on sports by playing Little League Baseball, Pop Warner football or C.Y.O. basketball.
“It’s critical to reach a younger portion of the fan base,” said Chris Marinak, M.L.B.’s chief operations and strategy officer. “They have the longer span of fandom. We need to do a better job of communicating to Gen Z what it means to be a fan.”
Tim Ellis, the chief marketing officer of the N.F.L., added, “What we know is that if you don’t acquire a fan by the time they’re 18, you’re most likely never going to get them.”
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