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The Rise of the Sports Celebrity

Gen Z viewers are turning athletes into pop culture stars.

Lebron James flexes for the cameras. Photo: Time

Sports and geography go hand-in-hand. My grandfather rooted for the Brooklyn Dodgers upon their relocation and, my Dad rooted for the New York Mets, but never the Yankees. Americans, in general, are proud of their city or state and will root for whichever team represents them best on that front. However, with the advent of social media, Gen Z has been challenging these traditional ideas.

Unlike our parents, we’ve grown up in an incredibly fast-paced world. Many modern sports fans simply don’t have time to sit down for a 2-4-hour game. Lucky for us, we can depend on Instagram, Twitter, or YouTube to show us the highlights. Therefore, we never miss the big plays, always afforded the chance to see stars like Lebron James, Auston Matthews, Patrick Mahomes, and Aaron Judge shine under the spotlight during their brightest moments.

Whether it’s because of their incredible talent or personality, oftentimes we’ll even follow our favorite athlete on social media. As an athlete gains a large following online, they slowly earn their place in popular culture. Because of this, while still usually dedicated to a hometown team, Gen Z is much more inclined to root for an athlete, no matter what team they play for. I myself am a big hockey fan, but that doesn’t mean I only root for my team. I also root for players I love to watch, like Conor McDavid, a player living up to Wayne Gretzky’s legacy, or Auston Matthews, who has by far the best sense of style in the league.

This has forced the sports leagues themselves to change their marketing approach. The NBA, for example, is great at engaging with Gen Z because many of their athletes are engaged in social justice, like Black Lives Matter movement. Players like Lebron James or Kyrie Irving, are only a couple players - amongst many others – who’ve spoken out about social justice to their millions of followers appealing to a Gen Z crowd that supports change. NBA athletes, in general, tend to worry more about their next contract and winning a championship; this individualistic attitude is lends easily to celebrity status.