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.


Kyrie Irving wears a social justice shirt during the National Anthem. Photo: NBA

However, leagues like the NHL- which is more focused on the team as a whole - struggle more with engaging Gen Z. NHL athletes tend to give the same repetitive, dull interviews after a game, saying things like, “Yeah it was a great team win, we all played well,” even if they were personally asked about an incredible play. Their personalities don’t shine through as much as NBA players. The NHL is taking some action to change this, as teams are slowly easing back on strict game day dress codes. Additionally, the NHL has begun to highlight some of its star personalities. Auston Matthews, a fan favorite, has been everywhere lately, as if the league has realized that his personality and style are incredibly marketable.


Auston Matthews during a photoshoot. Photo: Sharp

Gen Z has had a massive impact on celebrity culture by pushing athletes to center stage and, celebrating their personalities – sometimes even more than their athletic skill. A feud between players, all-star caliber plays, and creative fashion choices spark much more interest among the Gen Z audience than in recent generations. Gen Z then gets to debate the drama with each other on social media, driving engagement even further and increasing the hype in the media surrounding certain players. In the future, there will be a much heavier emphasis on the personalities in sports leagues as the industry competes for the viewership and involvement of Gen Z.