Gen Z is eager to deeply invest in interesting digital experiences

Author: Žan Tratar | Read time: 6 min

Craig Howe is the Founder and CEO of Rebel Ventures, a global sports and entertainment agency focused on digital strategy and end-to-end activations. Craig’s digital and brand marketing experience from his 25 years of business ventures include work with the likes of Unilever, InBev, Lexus, NFL, NBA, Kraft/Cadbury and the United Nations.
Rebel Ventures’ mission is to transform sports organizations, brands and athletes into modern media and entertainment businesses through harnessing and maximizing digital potential. Their portfolio of clients includes world’s leading sports and entertainment properties, such as Real Madrid, Chicago Bulls, Golden State Warriors, Wimbledon, Netflix and Epic Games.
In this interview, we talked about modern fan culture, the future of digital, and aspects of cross-generational audiences with an insight into some of their projects for their clients. Craig is amazed by Gen Z’s ability to consume and follow such a huge variety of content at one time. Despite his rebelliousness when it comes to digital strategy, he is a believer of taking a cautious approach towards emerging technologies.

SPORTO: In your keynote at SportAccord in 2017, you shared your views on the important areas of digital space in the future. You mentioned podcasts and Augmented Reality (AR) as two of them. How do you see the biggest changes in the last years from today’s perspective?

CRAIG HOWE: I think the metaverse is a deeper manifestation of digital innovations that were beginning to emerge 4-5 years ago. Covid has really accelerated this process, creating a need for people to bring their lives from the physical to the digital, which has now created a level of acceptance. To me, this is the biggest change. It has now become culturally acceptable to have a virtual existence.

You also emphasized that “digital is like building IKEA furniture” – you can fail if you don’t do it methodically correctly. “Take your time, be strategic,” was your advice. We are living in a fast-paced, fast-moving time, where people have less time to reflect on things …. From your experience, does that impact the sports industry in terms of dedicating enough time to the strategy part?

Absolutely, I don’t think this will ever change. We had a sports property approach us recently, asking if they should do an NFT or take a Fan Token sponsorship. My response was, “What are you looking to accomplish”? The answer was quite direct and understandable as the sports industry recovers from Covid, “We need to make money.”

If you approach any digital decision purely from the standpoint of making money, you’re often at the mercy of emerging technology and at risk of losing the trust of your digital fanbase. Look what happened with FC Barcelona and Ownix, and Man City and 3Key.  Crypto, NFTs, Fan Tokens – these sectors are all the Wild West of digital right now. Taking your time to define the right long-term objectives and finding the right partners is more important than ever.

Taking your time to define the right long-term objectives and finding the right partners is more important than ever.

Rebel Ventures focuses on three areas: digital activation, strategy and premium content development. You work with some of the leading and iconic sports brands. Could you share your philosophy and approach?

At Rebel, we’re striving to build a business that can truly understand and optimize modern fan culture. Sports is where we have established our foundation of knowledge and expertise, but we’re now also working with industry leaders across gaming (Epic Games) streaming media (Netflix) and other areas that are helping to shape and define fandom in modern culture. Our philosophy is to understand as much as possible about fan behaviour and create a path for our clients to build genuine connections with their target audience.

Gen Z audience is one of the main talking points in the marketing world, but how to drive conversation to reach the cross-generational audience?

Although older generations are important, since they are spending money and have the disposable income to buy tickets and merchandise, it’s important for sports organizations to create a connection with the next generation of fans. Gen Z spends most of their time engaging on social platforms: TikTok, Instagram, Snapchat, etc. This audience is eager to deeply invest in interesting digital experiences and storytelling.

The good news is that digital has become a mainstream connectivity point between all generations of sports fans. Our approach is to create engaging experiences and content, adjusting the storytelling angle to different generations using the right digital channels for the right audience. By matching the storytelling with the right audience, we are able to maximize content performance, providing a bigger re-targeting pool to help drive conversation.

The good news is that digital has become a mainstream connectivity point between all generations of sports fans.

If we touch on some of your work … Bringing football and Pelé (with his iconic goal celebration) to Fortnite was something unexpectable. How do you see the future development, blending gaming with the sports industry, and how relevant will this area be in the future?

We don’t see this as blending, we see this as a reflection of modern fan behaviour. For Gen Z, there’s an equal amount of passion for sports, gaming, entertainment, fashion, culture, etc. The average attention span of a Millennial is 8 seconds; for Gen Z, that number is 4 seconds. The amount of information Gen Z can take in, and the number of brands and accounts they can follow is astounding. Their entire cultural experience is completely blended. Industries and brands that cannot understand and speak this blended language will struggle to grow and thrive as this audience starts to get older.

Gen Z’s entire cultural experience is completely blended. Industries and brands that cannot understand and speak this blended language will struggle to grow and thrive as this audience starts to get older.

An example of this is our work with Pelé and Fortnite. We took black and white footage of Pelé from the 50s, and modernized it in a way that it would connect with young gamers. This shows the timeless power of storytelling, making a football legend relevant to an audience that has never seen him play. As a brand, Fortnite has done an amazing job of blending together their unique universe with the sports world. We have been very fortunate to work with them.

There was another project with the legendary Pelé. Netflix launched his documentary in 2021 and wanted to create a breakthrough content piece that would resonate with multiple generations of football fans. What were your observations in this project?

The Pelé documentary is a perfect example of a project that is multi-generational, because greatness is iconic to all levels of football fans. One area that we really focused on was making sure the activation was relevant for the younger generation so that Pelé’s message, and what he stands for, can live on for all of eternity. By bringing athletes like Neymar and Vinicious Jr. into the conversation, we were able to connect with different generations of Brazilian football fans. So while all of these icons may be having a conversation about football, each athlete connects with a different audience.

Rebel helped RCD Mallorca with the kit launch campaign. Mallorca is not among the biggest clubs in Spain, fan base and performance wise, but it emerged as the 2nd most engaged club in LaLiga at the time of the activation. Also, how big was the impact of Rafael Nadal as the ambassador?

This project was an example of luck meeting preparation. RCD Mallorca had recently signed a kit deal with Nike, and Rafael Nadal is obviously one of Nike’s biggest tennis athletes, so there was a natural opportunity for collaboration. The campaign had multiple activation layers over a two-week period, but during our shoot, Rafael started doing kick-ups with a tennis ball, which wasn’t in our script. He did 53 kick-ups in a row, which was quite amazing. This piece of content was picked up by 433 (one of the largest  social football communities in the world, A/N) and went viral, generating over 11M views, thousands of comments across dozens of channels and almost $700k in media value. Successful content is often about being in the right place at the right time. We just happened to be ready for the moment, along with having a comprehensive two-week strategy for the campaign. This led to a big engagement month for RCD Mallorca.

We are living in a world of constant digital and tech innovations. Manchester City, for example, is building their first digital stadium. What is your view of the future of digital?

The possibilities are very exciting, but the Metaverse is still ‘the Wild West’. I lived in San Francisco in 1999, when the boom became the bust. Overnight, companies went from hundred-million-dollar valuations to being worth nothing. I think we’ll see some level of reset in these industries, where many of the Crypto, NFT, Fan Token companies will bust, and out of the ashes will rise the new leaders of Web3.  These companies will define and drive the future of the Metaverse. Having lived through this before, I’m a believer of taking a cautious approach and seeing what happens, instead of jumping in with both feet.

How do you stay ‘a rebel’ today where do you find inspiration for your work?

The brands and properties we work for are some of the biggest names in the sports and entertainment industry. However, it’s really the people we work with, both on the client side and within our company, that drive our inspiration. The older I get, the more I realize that people and culture are the two most important values in building a successful business. I’m inspired by people in our industry every day. It honestly doesn’t feel like work.

The interview was first published in the SPORTO Magazine No. 16 (March 2022).