Cristiano Ronaldo’s highly publicised return to Manchester United this week caused a social media stir not seen for any other player. @ManUtd’s official Twitter announcement gained a whopping two million likes and almost 900k RTs - eclipsing even the mega numbers Lionel Messi’s move from Barcelona to Paris St. Germain generated earlier this summer.
This 52INSIGHTS explores current trends in youth sports consumption today and how Gen Z sports fandom is shifting from a focus on the collective to the individual, through the lens of football and Ronaldo’s return to Man United.
THE INDIVIDUAL IS GREATER THAN THE COLLECTIVE?
At 36 years old, Ronaldo’s very best days are arguably behind him on the pitch (although tell that to the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday night) but his marketability off it shows no signs of slowing down. The simple numbers tell their own story - @Cristiano is the most followed person on Instagram on the planet (337 million followers). Yes, Man United’s new signing has more followers than Kim Kardashian, The Rock, Ariana Grande, Kylie Jenner and even long-term rival Lionel Messi.
You’ll immediately notice one thing about all those ‘most followed’ Insta accounts: they are individuals rather than sports teams or music groups. In the eyes of the young, the individual is greater than the collective. Indeed, Ronaldo has more Insta followers than the 20 Premier League teams combined - quite an achievement considering the global fanbase of the ‘Big Six’ in particular. His numbers have never shown any sign of slowing down, even as he hit his mid-30s - far older than many Gen Zs - and the 2018 accusations in Der Spiegel magazine that Ronaldo was being accused of rape in the United States, an accusation which he denies.
As a measure of Ronaldo’s incomparable marketability, two hours after Man United announced the agreement to sign him last Friday, they gained ONE MILLION extra Insta followers, while Manchester United was the second fastest growing brand on TikTok. That’s the global appeal of association football, combined with Ronaldo’s celebrity status within the game. Welcome to Manchester, Cristiano, and welcome to Old Trafford, millions of new fans. The argument as to whether Ronaldo is the greatest player of all time is debatable, but it’s difficult to say any footballer has ever been more famous (or followed).
GEN Z SPORTS CONSUMPTION
Man United are re-signing a player who is as good on the pitch as he is famous off it. And, if we look at trends around young people’s sports consumption, particularly Gen Z’s, it’s a signing that can make plenty of commercial sense for one of the world’s most valuable sports teams. One fundamental reason is that a lot of young people now support players rather than teams, and the numbers above are testament to that.
"I'm a Phil Foden fan, he's my favourite player, but even though he plays for Man City, the team I support is their neighbours Man United. My dad bought me all their jerseys when I was young, otherwise I'd support City. My friends are the same - we all love Ronaldo too." Finn, 13, Ireland
“I didn’t care that Ireland lost against Portugal this week. I’m a Ronaldo supporter.” 18 year old, Ireland
Millennials may have driven peak consumption in terms of sports subscriptions and sports viewership. With vast access to numerous competitions, men and women born between 1981 and 1996 developed an insatiable appetite for live sports, lifting leagues, teams, TV channels and associated brands to unprecedented heights. Alongside this came pricey subscriptions and some eye-watering TV deals, including the most recent €5.6 billion Premier League agreement signed with Amazon, Sky and BT in May.
That number taken on its own merit would point to a competition and a sport in rude health, but viewership figures have been declining in recent years, partly driven by a Morning Consult poll that showed Gen Zers are half as likely as Millennials to watch live sports regularly and twice as likely to never watch them at all.
Plus, when Gen Z are watching or consuming sports content, they are doing it very differently to previous generations. YouTube is Gen Z fans’ preferred platform for sports content, with 49% saying they use it several times per week, followed by Instagram (44%) and Snapchat (37%). Smartphone and Computer Console use is also huge - many different areas for potential partnerships to reach fans.
SECOND SCREENING OR NO SCREENING?
We’ve known for almost a decade, since social media apps were so easily accessible on hi-tech smartphones, that ‘second-screening’ is a huge trend during live games - up to 75% of young people ‘second ‘screen when watching live sports. But these studies now point to a different conclusion altogether - some Gen Zers are turning away altogether, with an insatiable appetite for YouTube and video content that has only grown drung COVID-19 lockdown.
According to Nielsen’s ‘Game Changer’ 2019 report, “Gen Z is more loyal to individual athletes than teams or leagues, and it places loyalty on brands with social values that align with their personal beliefs. However, this age group has also demonstrated an openness to change team fandom and more willingness to pledge allegiance to teams outside of their local geographic areas, wherever they live in the world.”
There’s no definite answer as to what way this trend will end up playing out with Gen Z and beyond - will viewership figures of live sports games and indeed live TV continue to dwindle, will that have a knock-on effect for in-stadia attendance and fans choosing not to experience action in the flesh, in 50 years time, will sports team and TV networks look entirely different to what they do today due to changing behaviors and interests from their audiences? With our young people now growing up with phones from a young age, this is a trend that’s set to stay, so the question for marketers, sports teams and network broadcasters is: how do they continue to sell their products to a young audience?
Certainly it’s clear, and it’s something that all new NFL stadia built in America embraces, is the state-of-the-art ‘experience, from 5G and wi-fi enhanced seating, 360-degree video boards, food and drink delivered to seats via drone and a whole lot more needed to continually enhance the spectacle and encourage new fans to attend games.
The landscape of Gen Z sports fandom is digitally-led. Don’t be fooled by the conception that Gen Z’s have short attention spans, the Nielsen report states that 43% of those surveyed in the Gen Z category watched one hour or more of content at a single time. It’s about the quality of content, interactive opportunities and the overall entertainment experience - get that right, and the audience will follow, in any age category.
Tapping into the power of personality is a brilliant way to connect with sports fans, especially through social media. Consider long term partnerships with ‘up-and-coming’ individual athletes. The world’s leading apparel manufacturers often sign up athletes on the basis of potential - X and Y may be at a certain level today, but the brand predicts they’ll have reached far higher in five years time.