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Generation Z fans force leagues to get more socially active

Updated April 16, 2021 - 1:08 pm

The NBA, NHL and WNBA paused their seasons last summer after the fatal police shooting of a Black man in Wisconsin. The NFL and Major League Baseball have shown more support for players who take a knee during the national anthem.

Until recently, sports leagues had been reluctant to wade into anything even slightly controversial, particularly as it relates to politics. And few topics are more hot button than social justice.

But that’s a subject Generation Z — those born in the mid-1990s and beyond — largely embrace. Because Gen Z is the future, leagues are trying to align with their values.

“This generation is more connected to organizations whose values align with theirs, and I think it is no longer just about a good product or an entertaining service,” NBA chief marketing officer Kate Jhaveri said. “I think the NBA has long been a values-based organization, and we’ve been really focused on equality, diversity and inclusion.”

But that doesn’t mean other leagues can’t take actions on high-profile issues. The NFL, for example, went with the theme “It Takes All of Us” last season.

Nearly a third of NHL players spoke out on social-justice issues last year, a noticeable increase for a sport typically reticent to take such stands.

“We need white allies to be the bridge to create true change,” NHL chief marketing officer Heidi Browning said at an online forum. “We got incredible player involvement and commitment to it to complement what we’re doing both at the league and the club levels.”

While some leagues are playing catch-up, others such as the WNBA find themselves in a comfortable spot.

“It’s not a fad for us,” WNBA chief operating officer Christy Hedgpeth said. “It is part of who we are. It is part of our DNA. We’re just so proud that in some ways the rest of the world has caught up with us. If you think about the composition of our players, they’re all women, 80 percent women of color and some portion who identify as LGBTQ plus.

“A long time ago that was seen maybe as more of a liability, and now it’s really refreshing to see throughout all of it players have remained who they are. I think young consumers really, really relate to that, and obviously we’re working to make sure we meet them where they are on all these platforms.”

Contact reporter Mark Anderson at manderson@reviewjournal.com. Follow @markanderson65 on Twitter.

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