Study after study shows the same thing: Generation Z — that’s people born from the mid-1990s to the mid-2010s — is not following sports at nearly the same rate as every other generation that preceded them.
While it’s obviously too early to tell if this will be long-lasting — after all, the oldest members of Gen Z are barely 25 years old — the trend is troubling, not just for attendance figures and television ratings, but also for the nascent sports betting industry.
After all, if people aren’t following sports, then betting on sports would seem like something that’s completely off the board.
But Mark Beal, an assistant professor at the Rutgers School of Communication and Information and the author of Engaging Gen Z, isn’t so sure the worry is warranted. In fact, he thinks Gen Z might end up being as interested in sports betting — or even more so — than the Millennials, X’ers, and Boomers before them.
Beal conducted a survey of about 500 members of the generation, focusing more on the 18-plus crowd. He found pretty much the same thing as many other studies: Members of Gen Z weren’t as likely to consider themselves fans of sports as older generations. But then he broke out some of the sports fans over the age of 18 and talked to them directly. About two dozen people total.
“Every one of them said they do watch games when they have a small stake in it,” Beal said. “Five bucks, ten bucks. Nothing crazy. They say it’s a form of interactive entertainment. That was consistent with everyone who was legal gambling age and over.”
Beal notes the key here is the “interactive”-ness of it all.
“They are seeing sports betting differently,” he said. “They’ll sit around in their off-campus apartment and hang out, and if they’re not together, they’re texting back and forth. They’re seeing it almost as a social event to make a wager, to watch a game together, and even if they’re not physically together, they’re interacting throughout. It’s gamification for them, even though there’s money involved. It’s the gamification of sports events on TV where they’re having fun competing against each other.”
‘All day we’re texting back and forth’
“It’s definitely a more social thing,” said Joe, a 19-year-old college student. “I’d say out of all the sports betting in my generation, I’d say 15 percent of the people who do it are doing it every single day. I know people who are betting the spring training games. But the rest of us? Maybe a couple of bucks on a Sunday game that everyone is watching. And a lot of the times we’ll all bet on the same game so we can cheer when Aaron Judge hits a home run or something.”
His friend, Tanner, also 19, agrees, although he is in the “daily” category.
“I’m betting every day,” he said. “I’ve been a huge sports fan my whole life, did fantasy football and NCAA brackets, but when I had the opportunity to do this, I jumped on it. All day we’re texting back and forth about the games, we’re all over Twitter and Instagram, talking to people all over the world about picks. It’s a group community for us.”
Tanner also points out an obvious, if not all that discussed, aspect of the online sports betting experience: It’s super-duper easy.
“Our generation is very tech savvy, and another big thing that connects our generation and sports gambling is that it’s very easy for anyone to use it. Just click a button and you’re in. That by itself has attracted a lot of Gen Z kids to get into this.”
Beal noted the same thing, and further noted this is a dream scenario for the sportsbooks.
“Once they’ve got the app on their phone, it becomes real estate on the phone,” he said. “From a marketing standpoint, real estate on someone’s phone is the ultimate. You’re a tap away from engaging with my brand. Every brand would love to have a presence on our phones. And I bet these kids have two, three, four, or more sports betting apps right there.”
In fact, a year ago, CivicScience ran a study on sports betting (full disclosure: this author wrote it). And what it found went way underreported: By age, the 18-24 cohort bet on sports the most, with 10% of respondents saying they did. And an even more eye-opening number? When asked if they would bet on sports if it were legal in their state, the number ballooned to 27%. And while the company hasn’t run a public study on sports gambling since, it’s a fair bet to imagine the number has grown over the last year.
Money talks, but experiences rule
“As far as money, they are pretty financially conservative and they tuck their money away,” said Dr. Corey Seemiller, a member of the faculty of the Leadership Studies in Education and Organizations at Wright State University and a noted Gen Z researcher. “If they have any discretionary money they are putting it in the piggy bank and they aren’t necessarily doing anything with it. They prefer stability, and that leads me to believe that perhaps they’re not using it on betting and gambling. A lot of them are forgoing new clothes and eating out even when they have the money to do that. I don’t know if this type of discretionary spending might be different, it might be something that lures them, but they’re not being lured by other types of discretionary spending.”
Seemiller’s point is well-taken. This is a generation that has grown up in the shadow of 9/11, the Great Recession, the decline in reasonable political discussion, and, of course, COVID-19. It clearly hasn’t been the most steady of times to grow up in.
And Beal agrees: Gen Z is tight with their money. But there’s a but coming …
“What they’ll say to me as far as money and savings is that they are watching their money closely,” Beal said. “But they also talk about happily spending money on experiences. Pre-pandemic that might have been a concert, a sporting event, traveling. But to them, wagering a few dollars, that qualifies as an ‘experience’ to them. It’s fun, it’s interactive, it’s engaging, it’s something they can do with their friends.”
And while Seemiller hasn’t studied Gen Z and gambling, she’s keen to the idea of “experience” spending being a main driver of the generation’s willingness to dig into their wallets.
“It’s all about happiness for them,” she said. “Money is not central. Sure, they know they need enough to pay their bills, but they’re not out there necessarily trying to become uber-wealthy.”
All of this is echoed by our two-person Gen Z discussion group.
“We don’t look at it from a business standpoint,” Joe said. “We’re interested in stocks, and that’s business talk. Sports betting? It’s just for fun. Obviously we want to make money, but if I lose $20 on a game, it’s OK. It’s definitely more about the commotion and cheering and everyone being together.”
“It varies,” said Tanner. “For me it’s a mix of making money and having fun with my friends. I’m not killing myself about the money. Yeah, it’s more of an enjoyment for me. Making money is just a plus.”
Obviously — and as Seemiller points out — we can’t know what the future holds, and Gen Z “has already tended to surprise,” as she put it.
Overall interest in sports is down, according to studies. But according to the CivicScience study, Gen Z is poised to potentially become the dominant force in sports betting. And according to Gen Z themselves, their version of sports betting is more about having fun than making money. It’s a push-and-pull that is bound to be the driving force of the industry in the years — and decades — to come.
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