The WTA and the Olympic Games are Showing How (and How Not) to Attract Generation Z Fans
Updated: Mar 25
Not too long ago, I had an opportunity to record a podcast interview with Jessica Smith, the Head of Revenue for Angel City FC, the National Women’s Soccer League’s newest franchise that will begin play in Spring 2022. Jess is always a lot of fun to talk to because she brings such passion and perspective to her work.
The whole episode is worth a listen (I may be biased here…), but if there’s one moment that sticks out it’s when Jess starts talking about Gen Z and fandom. Listen here:
This is a trend that began with Millennials, who came of age in a time when awareness of issues related to climate change, inequality, and other major systemic issues rose dramatically, along with expectations of companies and brands to take positions on these issues. Generation Z, then, is the embodiment of a maturation of these expectations. Their purchasing decisions are firmly rooted in both what a brand can offer them, but also in what it can (and does) offer the world.
As a result (and to Jess’ point), Gen Z is considering more complex attributes when deciding how and where to spend their money. And sports are no exception. Smart leagues and teams (like ACFC) will take advantage of this trend by clearly identifying and acting on a set of beliefs.
Which brings us to the Women’s Tennis Association and the Olympic Games. The former is providing a case study of how a sports business can identify and act on a set of beliefs, and the latter… well… isn’t.
The discrepancy between the WTA and the Olympics is revealed in their reaction to the disappearance of Chinese professional tennis player Peng Shuai. On November 2, Ms. Peng published a shocking social media post describing sexual abuse by high-ranking Chinese Communist party member Zhang Gaoli. While posts of this type are (horrifically) commonplace in the West, they’re unheard of in China. In less than an hour, the original post was scrubbed from the Internet by China’s hyper vigilant censors, and Ms Peng, one of the country’s most high-profile international athletes, had disappeared from public sight.
Her disappearance is playing out against the backdrop of the 2022 Winter Olympics, which are set to begin in February. The Games are extraordinarily important to China, which is eager to position itself as a leader among nations on a global scale. Similarly, China is extraordinarily important to the Olympics, as it is one of the few nations that can be relied on to spend the resources necessary act as a host country.
While the relationship between the Olympics and China is certainly important, so is the relationship between the WTA and China. 10 WTA tournaments (20% of their total schedule) are currently held in China, including the season ending Tour Finals.
So with such incredibly high financial stakes involved, Ms. Peng’s disappearance presented each organization with a challenge to their respective missions. For the WTA, that means serving as a “social responsibility vehicle”, and for the Olympics it means to “to promote a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
In response to broad public outcry regarding Ms Peng’s disappearance, the Olympics held two highly suspect video calls with the athlete. No video, audio or transcript regarding these communications was released. As a result, the Olympics is (correctly) seen as serving the business interest over its mission.
Conversely, the WTA immediately announced that it would suspend all future Chinese tournaments until it was assured of Ms Peng’s safety and security. For the WTA, it was mission before business interests.
The Olympics has been struggling with declining interest for years. Part of their strategy has been to add events to the Games like surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding that organizers believe would attract a younger audience. But this is the proverbial lipstick on a pig. If the Olympics really want to attract a new and passionate audience, the Games would do well to adhere to their own mission statement and take a hard stand against events that fail in the “preservation of human dignity.” Otherwise, the Olympics may very well add a new sport to their roster: the Accelerated Slide toward Irrelevancy.
As for the WTA, time will tell. The short-term financial hit will be consequential, something that WTA President Steve Simon is intensely aware of. “I don't know how to give you a number of what the actual effect will be,” Simon said, “but it will be millions of dollars, for sure. And, you know, time will tell, based upon what comes our way, how deep and how much further that goes. I'll just say that it's significant, for sure. It's going to be significant."
Will younger fans take notice of the WTA’s stance? If so, will long term benefits associated with renewed Gen Z interest in women’s tennis be enough to offset the initial damage? If trends, demographic shifts and Jess Smith are to be believed, the answers are “yes”.