Think Forward: Sports Edition. Emergent trends in digital sports culture

Today we’ve launched a sports-focused edition of our trends report, Think Forward. Here, Head of We Are Social Sport in the UK, Joe Weston, delves into the trends shaping sports marketing in 2023.

One of the major focuses for us as an agency is to dive into arguably the biggest crisis facing sport. Why do the next generations coming through seem to be switching off from sport? 

In response to these reports, we’ve repeatedly seen sports bodies attempting to change the nature of sport itself. Whilst we as an agency do believe that sport can – and often should – look for ways to enhance the product, changing the fundamentals of the sport itself should always be a last resort. 

It’s a risky strategy. You risk alienating existing audiences opposed to change. You risk adding layers of complexity where there doesn’t need to be. 

But more importantly, it contributes to the feeling that the people running sport have become disconnected from the people playing or enjoying sport itself. 

So we’ve been taking a closer look at the evolving trends within Gen Z culture so that we can start to decode, translate and understand what’s REALLY going on. 

And we’ve found that when you dig a little deeper, you uncover some really interesting cultural advancements which are genuinely inspiring and provide amazing creative opportunities for brands, sponsors and rights holders to totally change how they approach marketing. 

Trend 1. Textured Discovery: 

The way people explore the internet and discover sports content is evolving. 

Throughout time, sport has been something that is inherited through family or picked up through participation, but social is creating new avenues into sport through exploratory discovery. 

As the internet becomes ever more saturated, content curation is being prioritised over simple information-gathering

Trend 2. Collapsing Narratives:

Storytelling is no longer linear or following established structures.

Instead, to survive the modern attention economy, storytelling on social is mutating. Stories are no longer progressing through a traditional beginning, middle, end narrative arc. And they no longer play out start-to-finish in one place. 

Instead, they’re collapsing and starting mid-narrative, or expanding and becoming scattered across platforms.

There’s no better example of this than Popeye’s most recent sponsored athlete, Collin Deunerst.  Known as the Popeye’s kid thanks to a 2013 viral Vine meme which he was the star of. Fast forward 10 years and Collin win’s his state’s football championships and Popeyes re-enter the story signing him to a deal sparking engagements in the thousands. 

Trend 3: Margin Chasers: 

In sport, niche behaviour is seen as more authentic, gaining traction and cutting through. 

For Gen Z, the middle ground is the scorched earth. It’s why in 2023 there’s no worse insult on TikTok than calling someone ‘mid’ (meaning: middling). Coinciding with this is the rise of ‘Goblin Mode’, Oxford’s 2022 word of the year. When it comes to goblin mode, the more wild or subversive your energy, the more attractive it is. 

All this is to say that the extremely niche and the chaotic are winning out among sports fans. 

It used to be that fans would game the algorithm by expressing their fandom through outrage on fan channels like Arsenal Fan TV, but now sports creators are carving out their own niches, from alternative commentary to comedy to ball making influencers like Jon Paul’s Balls. 

Trend 4: New Cooperatives

In 2022, the social life of the web is thriving. Absent in all this? The individual profile page. Identity curation, self-presentation, hierarchy and status-seeking are being set aside to make space for community-building, and far less focused on the individual.

In sports culture, this is being driven by online toxicity. In a survey conducted at the European Championships, 1 in 4 ethnic minority football fans reported that they’ve been the subject of racist abuse on social media. The World Athletics Body also conducted research following the Tokyo Olympics which found “disturbing levels of abuse of athletes on Twitter and again after the last World Cup, when French players were racially abused on Instagram.

Trend 5: Expanding Identities

Sports fans and athletes are venturing beyond their expected boundaries 

On top of the rise of new co-operatives, the ego-centric nature of Gen Z is also being eroded by their experimentation with fluidity when it comes to their online identity. If managing one ego is hard, imagine trying to manage multiple at the same time.

It’s why we see sports fans seamlessly moving from the worlds of fashion and sport, and athletes like Tom Daley sharing his love for knitting on TikTok, or Slovenian icon Luka Doncic creating a virtual alter-ego of himself. 

Against this backdrop, brands and creators alike are finding new ways to engage the next gen through unprecedented partnerships and identity plays.

Read our full report below:

Find out more about We Are Social Sport here.