From the Chargers to Bills: NFL teams are winning over Gen Z

ByErika LeFlouria ESPN logo
Friday, August 11, 2023

It's no longer a requirement to attend or watch games or don specific colors to be deemed a fan of a team. Now, fandom can come simply by following a team's account on social media. As fandom has changed, the way teams interact with fans has changed, too.

NFL social media teams across the league have made it a mission to meet fans -- and potential new ones -- where they are ... especially the younger generation.

While a 2022 study by Emory University professor Michael Lewis, found that only 23% of Generation Z -- people born from 1997-2012 -- define themselves as "avid sports fans" and 27% define themselves as "anti-sports", the NFL's success at enticing younger generations is in the numbers.

"We've seen the feedback, we've seen the engagement, that the more behind the scenes, more access, things that make you feel a part of the team -- it's our objective every day," Nilay Shah,New York Giantssenior vice president of marketing and brand strategy, told ESPN.

According to the Morning Consult, about 68% of Gen Zers use the popular social media app TikTok. This usership has fared well for the NFL, with 23 teams raking in over one million followers each. Teams across the league have routinely racked up 100,000-plus views on videos no matter the time of year.

"Gen Z and Millennial social media culture, I think drives a lot of social media culture in general," Anna Stolzenburg, director of social media strategy and content at Pegula Sports and Entertainment, working with the Buffalo Bills, said. "So we have a responsibility to be attuned to that and responsive to that."

There is still a long way to go to get a majority of Gen Zers to be passionate about sports, but the NFL, with the help of TikTok, might have cracked the code on luring the newest wave of fans.

Brand recognition helps teams get views, but it's the showcasing of the players' personalities that makes them go viral.

"I think TikTok, for a lot of teams, changed the game," Los Angeles Chargersdirector of social mediaand content performance Megan Julian said.

The unique platform and loyal usership encourages teams to show an authentic look at players who once felt unavailable and untouchable to the everyday fan.

"Everyone sees them with the helmet and sees their stats and just sees you know what they're doing in between the lines, but I think [on TikTok] you get to kind of see who the players are as a person and kind of what they like and who they are," Carolina Panthers' senior social media manager Angela Denogean said.

The most popular teams pages are the ones that are the most active, have creative videos and primarily focus on showcasing the many personalities of their players (being good on the field helps, but is not essential).

"They [the fans] have a unique sense of humor. And we have to be in tune with that. And I think that's one thing that me and my team have been able to do since I've been here, is really kind of tap into that voice of the fan and communicate with them in a way that they want to be communicated with," Jacksonville Jaguarsdirector of digital and social media Nick Birdsong said.

The Kansas City Chiefs lead the NFL's presence on the platform with 3.1 million followers and 57.5 million likes. Their 2023 Super Bowl opponent, the Philadelphia Eagles, are second with 2.3 million followers and 59.2 million likes. The Dallas Cowboys have also captured the attention of fans sporting a lofty 2 million followers and 26.4 million likes.

Some teams' TikTok accounts have the organization's largest following among all their social platforms. The Buffalo Bills have 1.9 million TikTok followers compared to 1.7 million on X, formerly known as Twitter, and the Detroit Lions' following doubles its Instagram, with 1.9 million followers compared to 997,000.

Two of the offseason's most popular videos were the Cincinnati Bengals' social team getting tackle Orlando Brown Jr. to ask players in the locker room their favorite Taylor Swift song (over 712,000 likes), and the Bills' video capturing quarterback Josh Allen failing at basketball (809,000 likes and counting).

As much as the fans love the informal social media content, the players do, too. Most of the social team's ideas are brainstormed as a group and fleshed out among the people running the accounts, but sometimes they take ideas from the players.

"They know they can always send their ideas to me. Sebastian Joseph-Day sends me ideas all the time. And I'm like, let me write this down, let me write this down," Julian said.

"We've gotten amazing buy-in from the players, like they honestly, they love it," Stolzenburg said. "And sometimes they even bring us ideas, which is amazing."

The special thing about TikTok is that its videos can be (and have been) carried over to the other popular social media apps like Facebook, Instagram and X. Social media accounts once flooded with game highlights and informative graphics now include silly videos often taken from the team's TikTok account.

TikTok's takeover can now be seen everywhere.

The creativity and diversity in content can even be seen in one of the NFL's most-hyped up offseason events: the schedule release.

"The schedule release has really just become the NFL social team's Super Bowl in a way, and I think that it's become one of the biggest pieces of content," Deanogean said.

Just ask the Tennessee Titans, whose schedule release content reigned supreme across the league -- collecting an eye-popping 29.6 million views on X. The Titans' video was reminiscent of many Q&A videos that flood TikTok's "For You" page. The Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams also turned to TikTok for inspiration.

The second most viral 2023 schedule release was a product of the Chargers studying a specific subset of the younger demographic: anime fans.

"Anime was more about reaching the anime world of the internet, right, which is a very strong presence. A lot of our players are actually big anime fans. We found that the cross section between anime fans and football is very interesting and very strong," Julian said.

The brainstorming for the video started months in advance. Every joke was planned out, every scene was hand-drawn by one of the Chargers' producers. And the success of the video can be seen in the numbers -- their schedule release video pulled in 23.4 million views on X.

Social media and the way that video content has changed the game isn't going anywhere. It's only getting bigger and better, and becoming the leading way of getting Gen Z interested in the NFL.

"I think the league and clubs have done a really good job of meeting these generations where they're at instead of trying to bring them to us," Julian said. "You don't have to be the traditional football fan, we will adapt to you because you're the next generation of fans."

Related Video