If you’re my age, there’s a romantic connection to buying a band’s new record on vinyl but there’s an unquestioned benefit to having each song of that album available online at the click of a downloadable button. Similarly, the ways which I romanticize traditionally watching soccer and following my teams is being called into question by an emerging atomization of the industry. Ka-boom!
Like David Bowie once suggested, it’s time for me to turn and face the strange.
Millennial and Gen Z fan behaviors are redefining the ways soccer is consumed and actively helping assimilate previous generations into an ever-connected, boundary-less and (gulp) counter-intuitive consumption culture.
To me, this sort of unbundling is highlighted by two key factors:
1. Watching soccer without really “watching soccer”
Younger fans were the first to abandon cable TV and, therefore, live soccer. As access to linear TV broadcasts went away, they uncovered new forms of acceptable ways to take in the action. We studied these behaviors in our 2017 Digital Fan Report (downloadable here), with streaming, snacking and online surfing to name a few.
I’m an unabashed Chelsea fan. To the chagrin of my wife, you’ll find me parked in front of a TV from the first to last whistle for most any Blues match. I’m also a fan of Celtic and the Portland Timbers. To ward off marriage counseling, I’ve begun to follow these teams almost exclusively through a mix of game casting and social media.
While I’d be lying if I said these substitutes are as fulfilling as a live match on TV, I completely comprehend the fact that soccer’s core demographic largely looks at my substitute platforms as their preferred ones. Ask me in a few more years, I may just agree.
2. Soccer’s superstar effect
This one’s even tougher for me to stomach. I grew up burdened by a whole series of unwritten rules to being a sports fan, where the idea of following athletes over teams was a cardinal sin. Younger fans are not similarly weighed down. Individual players have become rock stars and there’s now no shame in being a groupie.
Coverage of soccer has principally become a business of minting soccer stars, whose storylines you can follow week to week, like episodes of a favorite scripted television show. This phenomenon is an important driver of soccer fandom in America, thus propelling the sport upward.
My emotional connection has always been with my teams, not players. I bleed Chelsea blue, yet somehow I kind of bleed Celtic green and Timbers green too (they’re different shades, you know).
Funny thing is that none of these teams are even remotely near my home, also a cardinal sin from the unwritten rules of sports fandom. Soccer helped open up my eyes to a completely flat world of clubs, leagues and tournaments. For the first time, the teams I chose to follow were mine because I chose to follow them.
Was I turned on to Chelsea because of the brilliance of Gianfranco Zola or because of the club itself? Tough to say if I’m honest. Uh oh, don’t tell my friends.
Ultimately, it’s the convergence of these two factors that really spells change.
Millennials and Gen Z’ers abandoned linear TV to find the soccer grass may actually be greener on the other side, a place where your choices are endless and your experiences have never been more personalized…regardless of how you support, why you support or who you support.
It’s akin to leaving the local record store and logging onto Spotify. You go in for Bowie but soon find yourself listening to Biggie. As the king of New York hip hop once said, things done changed.