Back in 2019, VICE declared that women’s football has gone mainstream and finally become part of the sport’s broader conversation in “A Crisis of Cash: Women’s Football Is as Popular as Ever, But Equal Pay Is Still Far Away”. But the campaign for pay equality, and equity in sports in general, had only just begun. With the 2022 UEFA European Women’s Football Championship well underway, we asked a new generation of athletes and fans if the culture of sports had changed.
Our latest study, “A Changing Sports Culture,” was conducted by VICE Insights and fielded via i-D website, social channels, and VICE Media Group’s proprietary insights community, VICE Voices.
“The way sports brings the world together is truly mind-blowing to me. Watching people come together to support a team they love; well, there’s nothing like it.” – Gen Z, Woman, US
Younger Generations Love Sports But Believe The Industry Needs to Do Better
85% of respondents identify as sports fans and acknowledge that sports have helped mould them into who they are today. However, younger generations continue to call on athletes, teams, sports leagues and fans to drive equality, diversity and community above all else. Inclusivity begets inclusivity, and the more we can break down the barriers of entry to sports for everyone, the more the game will flourish.
“The entire sports industry is flawed from the top of the Olympics all the way down to the bottom […] At an early age, it promotes division and cult-like blind ignorance and favouritism to specific teams, schools, neighbourhoods, states and physical features. Then you bring all of that toxicity to “be the best” and “always win” through a constant fight for survival amongst your peers and yourself for basic praise and self-esteem.” -Gen Z, Non-Binary, US.
45% OF RESPONDENTS SAY THAT TEAMS AND SPORTS LEAGUES DON’T KNOW HOW TO EMBRACE DIVERSITY
Resoundingly, young people feel a sports career has been for far too long accessible primarily to heterosexual cis-gender males and whoever is broadly accepted by our society and its biases.
In a 2022 article for the independent, Lewis Hamilton opened up about the diversity problem in Formula 1 after describing being the only Black driver on the grid as a lonely journey. Blackpool’s Jake Daniels spoke to Sky Sports about becoming the first active professional footballer in the Football league to come out as gay saying, “for a long time I’ve thought I would have to hide my truth because I wanted to be, and now I am, a professional footballer. I asked myself if I should wait until I’ve retired to come out… However, I knew that would lead to a long time of lying and not being able to be myself or lead the life that I want to”. Federations all over the world are grappling with questions around transgender representation in sports. As Guardian writer Sean Ingle wrote in his article Decision time: why sport is struggling to deal with transgender row “For years most have regarded the issue as too dangerous to touch: the sporting equivalent of playing pass the parcel with a live grenade. Now, though, they have no choice. The emergence of elite trans women, such as the weightlifter Laurel Hubbard, the swimmer Lia Thomas and the cyclist Emily Bridges, has seen to that.”
The sports industry still has an inclusivity problem, but, the winds of change are positive. Organisers of the 2021 Tokyo Olympics called it the most gender-equal Olympics in the game’s history – with women accounting for nearly 49% of the 11,090 athletes and fans demanding a continuation of gender parity in future versions. Former Brighton defender Ferne Whelan, who is now the PFA’s equality, diversity and inclusion lead, more recently spoke to BBC Sport about ‘The See It Achieve It’ initiative that aims to become a network for current WSL players from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Meanwhile, male and female figures across the world of football, such as the outspoken captain of the US women’s soccer team, Megan Rapinoe, continue to advocate for equality and put pressure on the industry to do better.
69% OF RESPONDENTS BELIEVE TEAMS AND SPORTS LEAGUES PUT MONEY BEFORE THE GAME ITSELF
Most respondents felt that when money is put before the game, it dilutes the experience for fans, with poor decisions being made for the sake of profit. They want the sports industry to be less about the bottom line and more about the fans, social impact and power of sports. To use sports as a way to unite people and to invest money into building a culture of togetherness versus accumulating profits.
“[I am upset at] UEFA football in general. Money and greed are corrupting the sport heavily.” – Gen Z, Man, France
75% OF GEN Z RESPONDENTS BELIEVE TEAMS AND SPORTS LEAGUES MUST TREAT ATHLETES LIKE HUMANS RATHER THAN ASSETS FOR MONEY OR FAME
Athletes have become a focal point on and off the field for younger generations. With 67% following their athletes on social media and an increasing number demanding more sports coverage of athletes’ passions outside of sports, stories about athletes’ challenges and their personal stories.
“I would pay more attention to the preparation of the athlete and their sports journey. The game and the final result is good entertainment, but behind the scenes [content] would teach me more and better understand what I am supporting and admiring during the games.” – Gen Z, Woman, Italy
They expect the leagues and brands to also take the time to learn about the athletes as individuals and to enter a more human era of sports, with compassion and empathy leading the way. When Simone Biles stirred the internet into a frenzy over her decision to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics, and Naomi Osaka ignited a fierce debate about allowances for mental health when she quit the French Open after experiencing “huge waves of anxiety”, the doors blew open to discourse around mental health allowances. For younger generations, openness about mental health and vulnerability within the sports arena is not a sign of weakness – with 44% of our audience saying that athletes today must be allowed to talk openly about their mental and physical health.
“[I am excited about] Naomi Osaka, she’s a female athlete and amazing for advocating mental health along with Michael Phelps and Simone Biles.” – Gen Y, Man, US
64% OF GEN Z RESPONDENTS SAY FANS CAN USE SPORTS AS A PLATFORM TO DRIVE CHANGE IN OUR SOCIETY
Activism is a big part of young people’s identity, especially Gen Z, with only 13% of this young generation saying they shouldn’t expect anything from athletes outside of the sports arena. When Nike launched their ad featuring former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick, “Believe in something even if it means sacrificing everything.” it was a calculated one – Nike bet on the fact Gen Z are willing to stick with companies and athletes who take risks and push culture forward. And they were proved right. Recently brands like Heinken have committed their entire campaign dollars to correcting gender bias across both the men’s and women’s game.
What’s abundantly clear is that young people are listening, watching and waiting to be inspired by the brands, athletes and leagues willing to become a tool for social change and to level the playing field – for everyone.
Let’s not let them down.
If you want access to our study “A Changing Sports Culture,” or to learn more about VICE Insights, email firstname.lastname@example.org.