From Teams to Icons: The Evolution of Sports Fandom

from teams to icons the evolution of sports fandom
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Gen Z and Gen Alpha Sports Fans Shifting Their Loyalty from Teams to Players

A Changing Tradition

Sports fandom has long been synonymous with unwavering team loyalty and passionate support for one’s favorite teams. However, during recent years a lot of change occurred and with change a noticeable trend has emerged, especially among sports fans belonging to Gen Z and Gen Alpha. These young fans tend to idolize individual players instead of traditionally showing loyalty to (mostly local) teams. This shift in fandom behavior can be attributed to several factors which are unique to Gen Z and Gen A, including the rise of social media, accessibility to global sports, and an ever-changing cultural landscape.

The Power of Social Media: The LeBron James Effect

Credit: AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

Both Gen Z and Gen Alpha were raised in a digitally connected world, where social media platforms have revolutionized the way sports stars interact with their fans. Athletes benefit from the use of a variety of platforms like Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok, where they can directly reach millions of followers. By sharing behind-the-scenes content, personal stories, and engaging with fans in real-time, players can create a deeper connection with their audience.

This accessibility fosters a sense of intimacy and relatability, making fans feel like they are part of the athlete’s journey. Through the shared journey, young sports fans feel more invested in the individual players’ lives and accomplishments rather than the teams they represent.

One of the most prominent examples of star-centric fandom is observed in the NBA, where players like LeBron James have successfully leveraged social media to a massive following. LeBron James, a generational talent and one of the greatest basketball players of all time, boasts a staggering 157 million followers on Instagram and over 50 million followers on Twitter.

James’ ability to connect with fans through heartfelt posts, inspiring messages, and glimpses into his personal life has created a dedicated fan base that transcends team affiliations. During his career, he has moved between teams, starting with the Cleveland Cavaliers, then to the Miami Heat, returning to the Cavaliers, and finally joining the Los Angeles Lakers. The Lakers gained about 3 million followers after LeBron’s transfer. Despite these team changes, LeBron’s followers have remained loyal to him rather than a specific franchise.

A Global Appeal: The Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi Effect

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Not only has the digital age changed how fans interact with athletes but also how they consume sports content. Unlike previous generations, Gen Z and Gen Alpha have access to a broad selection of sports leagues, competitions, and events from all over the world. Thanks to live streaming and on-demand services, fans can finally follow their favorite players’ performances regardless of time zones and geographical barriers.

This exposure to a diverse range of athletes means that these young fans are more likely to be drawn to individual players who stand out in terms of talent, charisma, or personal appeal. In contrast, traditional team loyalty may take a step back as fans become more attracted to players from different teams and leagues.

Soccer, being the world’s most popular sport, offers an excellent example of star-centric fandom on a global scale. Players like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo have achieved star status both on and off the field, establishing an enormous fan base worldwide.

When Cristiano Ronaldo recently transferred from Manchester United to the Saudi Arabian soccer club Al-Nassr, both teams experienced significant changes in their social media following. Following the transfer, Ronaldo’s announcement by the club got 32 million likes and Al-Nassr gained over 2.5 million new followers in a matter of hours – a 400% increase. The club currently stands at 6.2 million followers on Instagram, scaling it from 834,000 followers. Similarly, Manchester United faced a dip in engagement and followers after Ronaldo’s departure.

Another example is Messi’s transfer from Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) to Inter Miami.

The signing of Messi by Miami was a major coup for the club, and it has had a significant impact on its growth. One notable and eye-catching change was Inter Miami’s social media following, which went up from 1 million to 4.5 million followers after the announcement of Messi’s arrival. At the same time, PSG reportedly lost around 1 million Instagram followers with Messi leaving.

But that was just the beginning. Ticket prices on the secondary market for Messi’s first Inter Miami matches increased by more than 1,000%. According to TicketSmarter, on July 20, the eve of Messi’s debut, the average ticket price for the Leagues Cup match against Liga MX’s Cruz Azul was $712. Moreover, since the news of Messi coming to Inter Miami broke, more team merchandise has been sold than the previous entirety of 2023 combined. Selling 50% more merchandise than their closest rival, Inter Miami became Fanatic’s best-selling MLS club.

Fantasy Sports Influence: The Travis Kelce Effect

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Fantasy sports have recently emerged as a popular form of sports consumption and have significantly contributed to the rise of star-centric fandom. Gen Z and Gen Alpha often participate in fantasy leagues where they create virtual teams composed of players from various teams in real-life sports leagues. The success of such fantasy teams depends on the individual performances of each of the selected players.

Especially in American football, fantasy leagues have become increasingly popular. Fantasy players have grown an appreciation for watching additional games because they want to know more about the players in their virtual team. In fact, NFL Fantasy pushes fans to establish a deep, intimate knowledge of every player and every team. Fans immerse themselves in player statistics, injury reports, and game analysis, staying up-to-date with the latest NFL news to find out how they affect their fantasy team. Due to the high interest in fantasy sports, some broadcasting companies even display the player’s Fantasy NFL scores in their game broadcasts.

The emotional investment in NFL Fantasy is significant. Fans become emotionally attached to their fantasy teams, experiencing the ups and downs of player performances and game outcomes. Every touchdown, yard gained, or reception directly impacts their fantasy team’s success, intensifying the emotional rollercoaster throughout the NFL season. While sports fans are still loyal to their individual teams, the Fantasy Sports Trade Association (FSTA) is finding that fans are also becoming fiercely loyal to the players on their fantasy team. In fact, 73% of fantasy sports participants have purchased memorabilia related to their fantasy teams.

Particularly benefitting from this trend are the players who are ranked high. Travis Kelce, the star tight end for the Kansas City Chiefs, saw a notable increase in his social media following, especially on Instagram (where he has 2.5 million followers), due to his success in NFL Fantasy. Before fantasy football, tight ends were not really recognized, as most fans were more focused on the quarterbacks or running backs. However, in fantasy football the performance of each and every player matters and fans started to also direct their attention towards the often overlooked positions. Finding a good, steady tight end can be an absolute chore for fantasy football managers, because there rarely is a true difference-maker to lock into lineups every week. Kelce’s on-field prowess and consistent high performance have catapulted him to the forefront of fantasy football managers’ radars. His ability to consistently score touchdowns and accumulate receiving yards translated to valuable fantasy points, attracting the attention of fantasy team owners and enthusiasts.


The rise of star-centric fandom among Generation Z and Generation Alpha sports enthusiasts is a reflection of the digital age and evolving cultural dynamics. Data from specific examples, such as the impact of players like LeBron James, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Tom Brady, highlight how individual players have the power to revolutionize fandom and transcend traditional team loyalties.

While this trend may seem to challenge traditional sports fandom, it also presents opportunities for sports leagues and teams to adapt their marketing strategies to cater to the changing preferences of younger generations. By embracing social media, focusing on player branding, and providing engaging fan experiences, sports organizations can leverage this phenomenon to forge stronger connections with their fan base.

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