Know the score Jan 3, 2023

KNOW THE SCORE: BI in Sports Leading to Better Gen Z Engagement

KNOW THE SCORE: BI in Sports Leading to Better Gen Z Engagement

KNOW THE SCORE is a series of talks where TISA Group invites interesting guests to talk about the latest trends, challenges and best practices at the intersection of business, sport and technology.

In the tenth issue, Michał Wapiński caught up with Bas Schnater, Lead Fan Engagement Consultant, to discuss how one can use Business Intelligence (BI) to improve engagement with Gen Z sports fans. 

Bas Schnater has been working in the sports industry for more than 10 years. He gained experience in AZ Alkmaar, where he led all data-driven customer engagement projects, including CRM management & campaigning, optimising ticketing activities, organising events for fans or activating sponsors and business partners. 

Currently, he is doing consultancy for major players in the sports industry to help them achieve better results with fan engagement by organising workshops and translating the insights they possess into an effective action plan. Some of the organisations he worked with are: UEFA, Premier League, Allsvenskan, Liga Portugal and Ekstraklasa

Bas treats a fan-centric approach as the core of all his activities. His mission is to provide a better understanding of supporters’ needs and desires.

The exchange of views between Michał and Bas on the use of Business Intelligence in sports for enhancing Gen Z engagement led us to some interesting conclusions on:

⇒ What differentiates Gen Z sports fans from other generations?
⇒ Why is the approach to fan engagement in the US more attractive than the one in Europe?
⇒ What do you need to start BI in sports?

Read this interview and grasp some of our know-how!


Michał Wapiński: Bas, sports has a Gen Z problem. Today, almost no one disputes this. How and when did you identify the lack of Gen Z engagement as an emerging issue, and what was your first reaction?

Bas Schnater: Indeed, I noticed the Gen Z engagement problem around three or four years ago. A technological spray-and-pray approach has been applied in the past though unsuccessfully, and yet it is being tried again.

A few years ago, we saw many sports clubs setting up esports teams in an attempt to engage Gen Z. Recently, we have seen that many football organisations have made deals with crypto companies.  Both the interest in esports and crypto are attempts to create a bond with the younger generations, and both can be debated in its success. 

Although I believe in blockchain technology and I think Esports are great for specific audiences in the sports industry, I had many doubts about the way clubs, leagues and federations used these trends to activate Gen Z. My perception was that a huge amount of money was being wasted because of the lack of a proper strategy in favour of short-term trends – FOMO. 

A study I often use in my research is that of the European Club Association in 2020. It indicated that the population interested in football is ageing quickly. Linking that to what the market is currently doing in an attempt to turn around this trend, I understood that we, as a sports industry, aren’t the right strategic approach. Football clubs are mostly focused on kids-club relationships, which is only a part of Gen Z, born between 1996 and 2010. And after that comes the adult membership, with no specialised offering in between.

The attempts to engage Gen Z sports fans reminds me of what football clubs were doing to engage female fans. A marketing mistake from a decade ago known as ‘pink it and shrink it’ shows how marketing-FOMO can miss the target completely. Some sports organisations decided to offer white wine and pink merchandising in stadiums, convinced this would attract female fans. Obviously, it didn’t work as the approach to attract female fans is far more profound. Audiences are drawn by culture and social identification, not the colour of a shirt.

Therefore, you need to match your culture with the demographic you want to attract. For example, if you want to attract Gen Z sports fans, you can’t just implement tokens and say it will revolutionise your operations since fan engagement can perfectly be done without the need for any tokens.

I believe that in football, we could do our homework better. We could always zoom out a bit more. Explore what other industries are doing. This is a challenge, given the nature of an industry where you have game after game. That makes it tough to actually zoom out. So that’s where I saw a problem with Gen Z engagement and decided I would delve deeper into it to understand it and help others. 

I’m happy to see entities like yours – TISA Group – doing their best to increase Gen Z engagement by taking real actions. 

Michał Wapiński: I’m happy you mentioned the issues of engaging women in sports events, as this is the first thing that comes to my mind when I compare the Gen Z communities around football clubs in Western Europe and Eastern Europe. 

In countries like Spain, you will have whole families attending the games and supporting their favourite teams. Then, you will see a more balanced fan base in terms of gender. While in Eastern Europe, we have a culture where the stadiums are occupied in the vast majority (sometimes even more than 80% or 90%) by males – either fathers with sons or groups of friends. It makes the sports industry in some regions lose half of the population just because of the culture of the experiences that sports organisations provide. 

The incoming generations are expecting full equality. They are repulsed when they see the lack of actions to adapt the stadium and fan culture to balance the needs of women and men. I feel like many sports organisations should improve this area of fan engagement. What is your opinion?

Bas Schnater: When evaluating fan engagement, you always must first be aware of national and regional values and approaches. Regional culture is leading that part of the game in Spain. The culture for men and women to consume entertainment together is normal in European Mediterranean countries.

Recently, I went to Sevilla’s first male team game. Kids and women were everywhere. The culture of their stadiums is naturally adapted to make the experience attractive to all of the aforementioned segments of fans. However, it’s not a standard in all countries. That is why some sports organisations need to do more to adapt their organisational culture to the needs of other groups of consumers.

Actually, by indicating this problem, you inspired me to do new research. It would be very worrying if you had the culture of men and women consuming entertainment together in all places except for football stadiums. I might plan to take a closer look at that.

Michał Wapiński: Great to hear that – feel free to reach out if you need any help with that research.

If you were to assess the sports industry, would you say that sports organisations are doing enough to engage Gen Z? Who do you think has the best chance to come out as a winner from this situation?

Bas Schnater: You can always do more – that’s for sure. I believe some clubs still have homework to take care of.

Nevertheless, the whole situation is a huge opportunity for local and small sports clubs. This is because they understand their regional communities better than the big brands working globally. So, they can start the competition with the big players by adapting their strategy directly to the niches living close to their homeplace. 

It might be easier for smaller clubs to define their identity because they don’t have to listen to millions of people. The advantage of being a part of a smaller community is that you can focus on your fans better.

The reality is that if clubs and leagues don’t start acting now, they may lose a significant part of their local communities forever as the number of substitutes in the entertainment industry fighting for Gen Z and Gen Alpha’s attention is proliferating.

Michał Wapiński: Recently, I have heard that it is almost impossible to attract Gen Z without making older generations like Baby Boomers or Gen X “unsatisfied” or at least “confused”. Would you agree with that? Is it possible to be attractive to the young while not making the old “disappointed”?

Bas Schnater: Gen Z sports fans are very “loud” and active in expressing their criticism. I perceive it as a good sign because it means there are things that at least they still care enough about. 

One of the fields where we see intense activism from Gen Z sports fans is the topic of sustainability.. They will immediately verify your words and trust only those who tell the real story. 

This is one of the big fighting areas. Gen Zers keep telling older generations – “you didn’t care about our world as much as you should have, and now we need to handle this problem.”. Therefore, naturally, the older and the younger generations are arguing. But, I believe it is possible to adjust your strategy so that both segments of your fans will receive a positive message. A problem like sustainability is not about who’s fault it is, but about what action is taken now to reverse the damage.

To engage Gen Z sports fans, you need to show understanding towards the topics of:

  • psychological well-being,
  • economic issues coming from the changed economic reality and current inflation problem,
  • sustainability and the state of our environment,
  • different types of inequalities. 

Michał Wapiński: Whenever we discuss the challenge of engaging Gen Z sports fans we always differentiate between two approaches. The one we see in the US and the other one that we see in Europe. 

In the USA, they no longer differentiate between the sports and entertainment industries.If you are a sports organisation, it is obvious to them that you need to perceive the whole entertainment sector as your benchmark or competitors. 

It is not always the case in Europe as we tend to have a more conservative approach towards rivalry in sports. 

Which approach do you value more? To your way of thinking – which one is better and why?

Bas Schnater: You mentioned the essential difference. In the USA, leagues like the NBA are no longer treating their product as a “sports discipline”. It is supposed to be entertainment. On the contrary, in Europe, we are very much results-oriented.

Across the ocean, sports organisations care more about lifestyle, collaborations and influencers. They are also very open to letting individual players or sports celebrities express their political and social opinions freely. This is very efficient in Gen Z sports fans’ engagement, and Europe could learn a lot from that. 

There is a theory in sports economics. Let me rephrase it to give you a feeling of what it says: if you gave 1000$ to a sports entity in the US, they would make 2000$ from it because they care about profit maximisation. While, if you gave 1000$ to a sports entity in Europe, they would go to the market and buy a player for 90% of that sum because all they care about is the sports’ result maximisation. It is a system called profit maximisation in the USA versus win maximisation in Europe.

In the USA, they are also more direct and active in sales. For example, they call their fans to persuade them to buy a ticket for a game. Or they go door-to-door to sell tickets. In Europe, it would be strongly criticised. 

It partially comes down to private ownership. There are a lot of private owners in the US, and of course, they also want to make good revenue out of their investments. As private entrepreneurs, they understand that proper investing makes more money. In Europe, many sports organisations are dependent on public funds. Although private ownership is increasing, these sales practices are not accepted here as they are widely adopted in the USA.

Michał Wapiński: At the beginning of our discussion, you mentioned two topics that are very close to my heart – Esports and Blockchain. I used to run my own Esports organisation with over 30 playing members. I also am very engaged in making the industry aware of Web 3.0 and the opportunities Big Data, AI and Blockchain can bring to sports organisations. 

As long as I agree with those who criticise many of the projects that went to the market so far – as some of them did not represent the proper quality – I would not blame the technology for that. There is some truth in saying that my generation – Gen Z – is attracted to possessing digital assets and participating in various gaming activities. However, what we need is the right strategy behind it. As you said, implementing a new “revolutionary thing” without adapting the whole organisational culture to make it work simply doesn’t make sense. 

What should strategic decision-makers do to improve their organisations in terms of using blockchain and Esports in fan engagement?

Bas Schnater: Exactly! I fully agree with you. This is a popular “knife dilemma”. You can use a knife to cook a wonderful dinner or to stab a person. Same tool, two different ways of using it. Technology, no matter what it is, should not be blamed for human mistakes. Same with faulty AI: people train the machines. So garbage in, garbage out

What we need to understand is how the world doesn’t work. You can’t just set up an Esports team, hire a random person to play FIFA wearing your club’s jersey and believe it will bring Gen Z to your stadium. There must be a strategic activation plan behind it to make it successful. You need to look for an organic match, look for the lifestyle fit and connect the right tools – for example Tokens and Esports – to that.

Michał Wapiński: We both agreed that sports organisations lack real knowledge of what their Gen Z sports fans expect from them. What they need is verified and adequately collected data.

I saw you do a lot with BI in sports. I am very happy about that, as omitting business analytics in sports is a huge problem. 

Having all these possibilities coming with Big Data shouldn’t be neglected. If you were to go to a small-sized sports organisation in Europe right now and advise them on what they should do to maximise the benefits coming from their data analytics operations or optimise the use of the Business Intelligence systems, what would you tell them?

Bas Schnater: If I were to decide about BI in sports organisations right now, I would change the narrative. As the absolute first step, I would try to understand where the market potential is. Where can I expect audience growth? Usually, it is the nearest neighbourhood – a city or region. So besides getting to know my current fans, I would try to understand the demographics of my local target audience as deeply as possible. I believe sports clubs, leagues and federations should rely much more on this type of explorative audience research compared to just analysing their current fanbase and finding look-alikes.

The good part of Business Intelligence is that you can start with it early. Even if you have only 1000 fans, you can already extract insights to strengthen your strategy. It doesn’t necessarily need to be expensive. Currently, there are numerous tools to be used for free. Some organisations might find it beneficial to implement complicated SQL-based data warehouses. But the reality is that most organisations, also the big Premier League clubs, are too small to carry these costs. Instead, I always advise to start using Excel, MailChimp and Tableau. These three tools are almost free under certain conditions and are excellent to make great steps forward. What you do need is someone that understands what to do with these insights AND senior leadership that is willing to base its strategic direction on this.

Fancy technology could be a game changer, but it requires an investment that some small organisations often find redundant. Sometimes, sophisticated technology is not what you need. Often it’s better to invest in a person with logic who can operate off-the-shelf offerings that are out there.

Michał Wapiński: Bas, thank you for this insightful conversation. It was a pleasure to have a chance to confront my ideas with you.

Bas Schnater: Thank you, Michal. It was a great discussion! I hope to see more people as engaged in understanding Gen Z as you are in TISA. See you soon at various meetings and conferences! 


TISA recently conducted the #GenZChallenge project, where they surveyed the Gen Z community. If you’re interested in this topic, check the report with extended data analysis on Gen Z engagement around three SIA members – Real Sociedad, Legia Warszawa and Wolves


KNOW THE SCORE: BI in Sports Leading to Better Gen Z Engagement