The Minnesota Vikings are trying to learn something about younger fans from a teenage, self-described "Gen Z guru."
The team's hiring of Jonah Stillman, the 18-year-old son and business partner of marketing consultant David Stillman of Tonka Bay, reverberated in sports and marketing circles nationally after it was announced Wednesday.
Vikings Chief Operating Officer Kevin Warren said he read about Stillman and called him. "Our focus is always on evaluating our current fan base and looking 10-15-20 years down the road," Warren said Friday, adding that Stillman could help broaden the team's marketing perspective. "Although he's a young person, this is his business."
In tapping Stillman, the team is getting an atypical teen who is already a veteran of business and charity speaking circuits. He and his father market themselves as a Gen Z/Gen X speaking team and co-authored the book "Gen Z @ Work: How the Next Generation Is Transforming the Workplace."
Their main message is that members of Generation Z, born from 1995 to 2012, are already behaving differently from the slightly older millennial group that gets so much attention from marketers and the media. "In order to connect with Gen Z, you must first recognize that we are our own unique generation," Jonah Stillman said via e-mail earlier this week. "Many leaders and organizations tend to blend us in with the millennials, which is a huge mistake."
In the hiring announcement, the Vikings said Stillman, who graduated from Minnetonka High School earlier this year, is expected to help the team on marketing and digital media content as well as workplace culture at the team's new headquarters in Eagan.
Not all observers see value in the move. On the website Retail Wire, a panel of marketers debated some of the Stillmans' ideas. "Oh, how we love to categorize," Gene Detroyer, a professor at the European School of Economics, wrote on the site. "As we look at consumer behavior, keep in mind that there is no wall between these two generations."
Joe Tamburino, a lawyer and president of the Downtown Minneapolis Neighborhood Association who has worked with the Vikings on stadium issues, said the team missed a "golden opportunity" to hire a young person of color to work in a league where most of the players are black and team executives are white.
"I'm sure there are hundreds of Gen Z black men who have played varsity football" available for the job, Tamburino said.
Warren said it made sense to hire Stillman because he's a Twin Cities resident and a lifelong Vikings fan. He added he also expects Stillman to lead the conversation on connecting to youth, possibly with an advisory board that will include racial, gender and socioeconomic diversity.
National Football League teams face challenges drawing younger fans. Gen Z has grown up seeing professional football clouded by growing evidence and concern about the devastating long-term impact of brain trauma on the lives of players. Potentially tied to injury concerns, youth football enrollment has been trending down. NFL TV ratings, the big source of ad revenue, remain on top — for now.
Stillman, who played a year of football in high school and is postponing college for a year or two, said in the e-mail interview earlier this week he's "beyond excited" about the job with the Vikings.
"The NFL and Vikings have done an amazing job of exposing me to all facets on the game," he said. "This, combined with my ongoing research, will allow us to introduce new enhancements to both the in-game and everyday football experience."
As for what he might do, Stillman said Gen Z members are "after more exciting and private platforms. So naturally, Gen Z'ers will gravitate to platforms like Snapchat where we have more control over who sees our posts."
In one study, Stillman said he and his father "uncovered that 84 percent of Gen (Z) say the they prefer face-to-face communication" because it's the most "authentic."
The Vikings already are on the right track with a great "social media presence and authentic workplace communication," the younger Stillman said.
He cited Stefon Diggs as a great example of a player with an innate ability to connect with fans and kids "authentically" with a "flashy playing style and "exciting social media presence."