Know the score May 16, 2022

KNOW THE SCORE: Gen Z Engagement in Sports Clubs

KNOW THE SCORE: Gen Z Engagement in Sports Clubs

KNOW THE SCORE is a series of talks where Matthew Lentowczyk – CEO and founder of 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 seventh issue, Matthew Lentowczyk caught up with Richard Pepper, Head of Digital at Wolverhampton Wanderers, to discuss how sports clubs can improve their Gen Z engagement. Wolves are one of the most powerful football brands. For the last four years, they have been successfully competing in the best league in the world – Premier League. Their innovative digital products and solutions are paving the way for other entities in the sports industry. 

Richard Pepper is responsible for the digital growth at Wolverhampton Wanderers. His vast experience in this area, coming from Richard’s previous jobs, allows him to manage his department successfully. In addition, his passion for sports, particularly football, makes him combine his technical & analytical background with a strong sense of know-how on fan engagement strategies. Since Richard came to Wolves, they’ve run numerous thriving projects and implemented many successful tools, among which we would like to highlight SSO, Wolves TVOTT and their innovative mobile app.

The exchange of views between Matthew and Richard on the Gen Z engagement led us to some interesting conclusions on:

  • What is unique about Gen Z?
  • How are Wolves “fighting” for Gen Z attention?
  • What solutions would they recommend to other sports clubs to improve their Gen Z engagement?


Matthew Lentowczyk: Richard, last year you decided to join #GenZChallenge in order to survey the Gen Z community around Wolves. What were the main reasons that pushed you to do it? Also, how did you identify your problem with Gen Z engagement?

Richard Pepper: Indeed, last year we decided to join the project organised by TISA Group and SIA in order to find better ways to improve Gen Z engagement. We’ve got good infrastructure at our club that allows us to collect lots of data on our audiences across all of our platforms. 

From looking at the data, there is a clear gap between the involvement of Gen Z and other generations. Not just for Wolves but the whole football industry. Both in terms of the number of visits to our platforms and when we look at retail and merchandising – there is a threat that the football industry will face difficult times in the future. Struggling to connect with a younger audience is a common problem. We need to start acting now if we want to reverse the trend!

Matthew Lentowczyk: What did you find out about (the lack of) Gen Z engagement in your sports club so far?

Richard Pepper: Part of the problem – regarding monetisation and commercialisation of our marketing – is natural as Gen Z lacks disposable income. They are very young people, mainly students or just at the beginning of their careers, so they are financially dependent on their guardians in most cases. 

However, what they demand from the football industry in terms of fan engagement is completely different from what we were used to as a club. For instance, we know there is a growing trend for young fans following individual players rather than clubs as a whole. It’s an important piece of knowledge that makes us target them with an entirely different type of content. 

Another thing is the process of gaining or “creating” new fans. For example, in the #GenZChallenge report, we found that the most important source of gaining new fans is family. On the one hand, it’s good to focus on that from the beginning. But, on the other hand, maybe it’s one of the reasons why the percentage of supporters from Gen Z is lower compared to previous generations. We need to find ways to attract more supporters whose families aren’t pushing them to become fans. 

The whole entertainment industry is fighting for the Gen Zers’ attention. So, Gen Zers require a more innovative way of “winning” them – understanding that is key to informing how we use digital channels when targeting that audience. 

From the sports club’s perspective, offering new innovations – especially in the digital world – is what we should be doing to help gain new fans. 

Matthew Lentowczyk: We clearly see that Gen Z engagement in sports clubs is much lower than it used to be in the past with previous generations. What would you recommend others to do to reverse this dangerous trend?

Richard Pepper: It goes much wider than only football right now. Sports and entertainment organisations are looking to diversify to attract new audiences globally and we are no different

The story of the team, the values it represents, the individuals they consist of – it’s now more significant than ever before. Young people won’t start supporting you just because you have nice colours representing their city. They want to follow those with whom they can identify on many dimensions. 

For us – for Wolves – it’s all about how we tell the story, how we emphasise our uniqueness, and how we target our different audiences with personalised communication. 

Matthew Lentowczyk: In the #GenZChallenge, we found that the second most chosen option why Gen Zers started supporting Wolves is video games. Do you think Esports or Gaming might be crucial for your future operations?

Richard Pepper: We see this tendency that young people are very involved in Esports. Not necessarily with the professional side of it. Individual amateur streamings on Twitch or YouTube are becoming very popular among Gen Zers right now. 

We were one of the first Premier League teams to launch an Esports team back in 2018. We saw that it’s a natural extension of what football clubs already do. Whilst we focused on FIFA, to begin with, we’ve now expanded to other games a little more outside of football – we also do a lot through Fortnite and Rocket League – just to name a few examples. 

We’re also very aware of the different interests in Esports depending on location. We have many Spanish and Portuguese speaking players in the football team so we already run a lot of content in those languages, focusing on South America, North America and Europe. We’ve also had a few esports players from South America so there’s a good synergy there through our marketing and communications for both the football and esports arms of the club.

We also focus on  Asia and China in particular as our ownership group is based there. We have various Esports teams competing with the Wolves banner in the games that are more popular in China. They’re extremely successful in terms of the results they get and when it comes to attracting new people to the club. 

We want to make ourselves more visible to the audiences that might be interested in football as such, and Esports can help us reach that audience in other countries quicker. One of our strategies is to capture young people’s attention through gaming.

Matthew Lentowczyk: The broader your scope of activities, the more difficult it is to create engaging content for all of your audiences, isn’t it?

Richard Pepper: You’re right, but our team at Wolves is doing a wonderful job! 

For example, we achieved great results with the TikTok channel we created, even though we were one of the first sports clubs to implement it. When we bring on a new platform, we do profound research to understand what type of content we should produce to be attractive, which is what has made that channel so successful for us. 

Once you have the right content and engagement strategy that matches current trends, once you choose an appealing tone of voice, and once you are authentic with what you produce, you will begin to see big results from your digital communications. 

Matthew Lentowczyk: The football community seems to be just the basis for sports clubs. When we talk to the young people, we see the same thing you already mentioned – Gen Zers want to be engaged multidimensionally. 

Of course, the football community is still the most important foundation. However, you won’t overcome certain barriers if you forget about attracting “Esports community”, “gaming community”, “fashion community”, “influencers community”, “music community”, etc. Overall, we can call it a “lifestyle community”.

Having all these communities engaged in your sports brand is just the first step. Another is finding the right balance between the core issues of football competition and other entertainment activities you offer. Supporters from older generations, like Baby Boomers, might have a completely different approach than Gen Z youngsters.

Do you perceive it in the same way? What differences and similarities do you see between older and younger generations?

Richard Pepper: We see it in a very similar way. We’ve just launched a brand new record label in the last few months to boost the Wolves’ audiences and brand. We want to be the leaders in the market that will help the best music talents in our region become recognised internationally. 

Fashion is also extremely important to us. I would say that we’ve got one of the strongest colour palettes in world football. So, we can use it smartly to be instantly recognisable. We created WWFC using our brand colours and logo, which is our very successful fashion label operating in China. 

I definitely agree with your sentiment. We have the same unique view on our expanding industry – you need to position yourself somewhere between lifestyle, sports and entertainment if you want to keep your fan engagement high in the following decades. 

Matthew Lentowczyk: And what about the generational differences?

Richard Pepper: From what we’ve looked at, there are significant differences in many areas, especially in how different generations consume content. 

I have a very specific example that illustrates this issue perfectly. We launched a new functionality on our mobile app recently – very similar to how Instagram and Snapchat “stories” work. But the audience on our application is a bit older than Gen Z and young Millenials. So, what happened? We found that many didn’t realise you could tap the screen to scroll to new content and were closing the feature immediately after opening it. So we’re always walking a tightrope to ensure that new features work for all of our fans.

Generally, we saw that Gen Z and young Millenials spend a lot of time on two-three social media apps at most. These are often giants like Instagram, TikTok, YouTube or Facebook. Whereas the other generations historically would first google search the term they’re looking for. In practice, it usually means they will visit our website and consume content there. This is the major difference between these groups of fans. 

Matthew Lentowczyk: Still, we need to remember that currently, everything changes extremely fast. We need to keep collecting up-to-date insights on current trends to stay efficient.

One of the things that we noticed in the data from #GenZChallenge surveys was that even though Gen Z supporters declare they follow the game carefully, they don’t do it “on one screen”. 

Dual-screening – watching a game and following information on social media at the same time. This is what young people do. How are you covering their need for additional, exclusive or behind-the-scenes information? 

Richard Pepper: Yes, recently, it’s been discussed widely in our industry how to put more emphasis on the second-screen experiences. Capturing people’s attention on their smartphones or tablets while the game goes on TV is crucial. 

There are lots of possibilities. For instance, you can have a dedicated match centre where you distribute engaging content like real-time polls on whether the penalty given to the opposite team was fair. You can also let your community scroll through the real-time statistics and analyses. Or you can put some behind-the-scene content there.

People talk about the low attention span of Gen Zers but I believe that’s a myth, once this audience is invested in your content and trust they will receive some value from you, they often times watch and engage with content longer than others – look at how long they will sit through Twitch and YouTube live streams. The difficulty is that there is so much competition for their attention on those platforms that you only have a few seconds to grab their attention initially if they aren’t already a fan. This is the challenge.

Matthew Lentowczyk: The short initial attention span might also be one of the reasons why Gen Zers rarely visit websites. Young people seek volatility, not stability.

Richard Pepper:  Content on our website usually only gets updated a few times a day. More and more people are expecting it to work as social media does. They want to refresh it and see some new content. Understanding that is essential in implementing your Gen Z engagement strategy efficiently. 

Matthew Lentowczyk: Another thing is interaction. In the past, digital channels had one-way communication: clubs distributed information to fans. Now modern supporters expect that they will be heard. They want to be involved in interactions with other fans but also with players, coaches, directors or the club’s president.

Richard Pepper: From the digital point of view, it all starts with letting your fans know they can create content that will be published on your channels. We’ve worked towards including more fan-generated content on our website and app – pulling through some of the best content out there onto our channels, so it’s not just club led to content that they can discover.

The next step should be engaging your top stars in the interactions – your players and coaches. This is what can drive fan engagement. 

Then, the last thing to do is give your fans space to talk or chat with you about the improvements they expect, especially in terms of fan engagement. Sometimes you don’t need to spend months on research to find efficient solutions – sometimes, all it takes is asking your fans what they expect from you!

Matthew Lentowczyk: To sum it all up, if you were to name just one game-changer for Gen Z engagement, what would it be? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a technology.  

Would you name Esports, gaming, tokenisation, OTT, innovative mobile apps, approach to content creation, data-based marketing, lifestyle approach… or something else?

Richard Pepper: Ohh, I’ve got lots to choose from! I would say the future will be all about understanding your different audiences better and creating relevant content for them. It should be a pillar of what you do. 

The innovations we mentioned in our discussion might bring enormous value as long as you have this attitude in mind!