Sports

Can Joe Cool solve the NFL’s Gen Z problem?


Is this man cool? Gen Z sure thinks so.

Is this man cool? Gen Z sure thinks so.
Image: Getty Images

Much has been written about how deeply cool Joe Burrow is — and that’s really the only word anyone can come up with to describe him. Sometimes, there’s no further adjective that can really capture the appeal of a public figure than the simple, self-explanatory “cool.” As OBJ said, “If you look up cool in the dictionary, there’s him in some Cartier glasses.” Which is, in and of itself, a really cool quote.

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Whether Burrow is a generational talent remains to be seen. To place that label on a quarterback in just his second year can be to make a death sentence out of expectations. He’s obviously extremely talented and a tremendous leader on the field despite his relative youth, and he was able to quickly transform the Bengals franchise into a force to be reckoned with. There are essays that could be written about his on-field performance, and while that is undoubtedly a major factor in his popularity, I want to look more specifically at his off-the-field appeal — and with it, whether he has the potential to change the NFL for the younger generation.

To say he’s “generational” in the sense that was used to describe, say, Trevor Lawrence, may or may not be accurate. It’s up for interpretation, it’s highly subjective, and as we’ve seen with Lawrence, it’s very reflective of a lot of other factors surrounding a QB. But Burrow is a generational face in that he feels very representative of Gen Z. He’s not really “relatable,” per se, but he has captivated the attention of a generation that has not yet felt the draw of the NFL to the extent that other American adults have.

In December, we wrote about the declining interest that Gen Z Americans have in professional sports, based on results of a 2020 Morning Consult poll that defined Gen Z as those aged 13 to 23 years old. Compared to 59 percent of all American adults, only 49 percent of the Gen Zers surveyed described themselves as fans of the NFL. When respondents were asked to name their favorite athlete, four NFL players ranked in the top 10 responses for American adults (Tom Brady at No. 1, Aaron Rodgers at No. 6, Peyton Manning at No. 7, and Patrick Mahomes at No. 8), whereas only two ranked in the top 10 for Gen Z (Tom Brady at No. 6 — obviously since retired — and OBJ at No. 9).

So the question that remains is whether or not a singular figure like Burrow has enough “cool” factor to change the way the generation that is coming of age right now watches the game of football. At 25 years old, he’s on the upper end of the group of those surveyed in 2020, but he is embraced as part of the younger generation. The legendary cigar shot after the LSU national championship was his first viral moment that garnered universal appeal outside of the sometimes insular football world.

And the cigars have followed him to the pros — along with cool sunglasses and cool outfits and his cool diamond pendants and his effortless, ever-so cool responses to questions about all of these things. He shrugs them off, laughing, with an easy confidence that somehow avoids crossing into the territory of annoying and that he carries with him both on and off the field (notably, getting up time and time again after getting sacked a playoff-record nine times by the Titans and winning the game). Football fans can enjoy watching him play, but a lot of people — fans or not — just plain enjoy him.

Burrow’s face is all over TikTok, and only sometimes in the context of his on-field skills — videos of him dancing and smoking cigars, edits of him walking in slow motion, “best drip” compilations, revisits of his old tweets (a highlight from 2013: “Urban Meyer looks like Sheen from jimmy neutron”), and funny interview moments pop up frequently. His Instagram captions consist of The Office quotes, jokes about his own beard, and Spongebob references. Without his talent, he wouldn’t have the national recognition and platform that he does, but the newfound adoration for the Bengals star transcends his elite play. He’s got the personality, he’s got the look, and he’s got the appeal that has so desperately been missing for the younger generation in the NFL. (Patrick Mahomes suffers from a widespread dislike of his brother, and to an extent, his fiancée. Mahomes has a kid, too, which makes him feel older, though he’s only 26.)

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Here’s the thing, though — celebrity is so incredibly fleeting in this day and age, particularly in the way that we’re seeing Burrow blow up online. Now, I have no doubt that he will remain popular, closely watched, and well known by Bengals and NFL fans. His football celebrity isn’t going to just run out one day because of some new trend — but the draw he’s providing for potential fans and not-yet-viewers who are interested in his off-field coolness may be short-lived.

It’s hard to say whether the end result of this Sunday’s Super Bowl will affect that. He has a lot of exposure right now because of the upcoming game, but even with a win, the media cycle will move onto something or someone else. Could his cultural impact cause there to be a growth or resurgence of new fans in the next NFL season?

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And could he make Cincinnati cool? Super Bowl win on Sunday or not, the bandwagon Gen Zers may come a-flocking to a highly loyal, small-market fanbase. The Brady comparisons are obviously far too early and have very little merit at the moment, but Brady did reach a level of celebrity where advertisers and broadcasters benefited from having him on TV in both viewership and engagement. So while we’ve seen a single player make that sort of difference before, the issue at hand is with the low amount of Gen Zers who actually watch live sports compared to millennials and other American adults.

There may never be another Brady because viewership and fandom has changed so much in the past two decades he has been playing. But perhaps there’s a new opening for someone young and cool like Burrow to affect NFL fandom in another way. What that path might look like remains to be seen. But for now, for this moment, Burrow has reached a state of cultural iconicism that has the potential to drive casual or non-football fans of the younger generation to watch the NFL and perhaps even to get attached to Cincinnati if he sticks around.

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