Challenging Ageism in Sport

Trends / Realness
Sandra Michalska
Nov 30, 2021
Europe's demographics are shifting. And if marketers carefully study Gen Z's behaviours, focusing solely on the youngest consumer base might miss out on another, equally important demographic shift. We are living in an increasingly silver economy, and we know that 50+ are increasingly active1. They have spending power, start businesses, use technology, run marathons and compete in Olympic Games. On paper, they are poised to be the main drivers for the future economy, and that includes the sports and wellness industry.

However, sports advertisers and media are falling short of representing their full, multi‑dimensional lives. According to our Visual GPS research, only 8% of our most popular sports imagery in 2021 featured seniors. And when age is paired with other identity factors such as disability, gender or sexual orientation, the portrayal of an active senior gets even less inclusive. In times where people aged 50+ are becoming wealthier, healthier, more mobile and more active, brands continue to fall into the ageism trap. In our youth‑obsessed culture, ageism in sport seems to be the most “normalised’ of any prejudices. So, advertisers and media have an opportunity to build a new, unbiased vision of sport.
Repicturing “The Sporting Type”
Our most recent research on popular sports imagery reveals a clear generational gap, with young adults represented four times more than older adults. This lack of generational diversity has impact, and strengthens pre‑existing stereotypes that drive ageism within individuals’ self‑perceptions, as well. Our Visual GPS study shows that equating older age with declining physical prowess is often self‑imposed, as decreased physical ability or not seeing themselves as “sports people” were some of the reasons older age groups cited for not engaging in any activity. If there is a clear generational gap in representing people in sport, there is also a psychological barrier to be addressed. Inclusive visual storytelling, representing all age groups in sports activities have the power to break those barriers. There is no “typical” sporting type, as there is no “typical” older or young person. Being conscious about hidden biases is the first step to changing harmful stereotypes.
Raising the Inclusivity Bar
If Baby‑Boomers’ self‑perception is influenced by the lack of visibility, at the same time, they express a strong need for a shift in such limited views. Our most recent Visual GPS research reveals a global desire for greater age representation in sports imagery. In addition, 6 in 10 Europeans say that sports organisations should focus on creating an atmosphere of inclusivity. Yet, the most popular imagery used by brands does not fully reflect this hope, as white, slim, middle‑class individuals dominate the current visual landscape. By showcasing active elders and people aged 50+ across all identity factors, body types and socio‑economic backgrounds, brands can tell a more engaging and inclusive story of this growing population.

Furthermore, raising the inclusivity bar is not only about closing the generational gap, but representing all identity intersections in various roles: coaches, referees and fitness instructors. 6 in 10 agree that the sports industry needs to do a better job of including people from diverse backgrounds in their ownership, leadership, coaching, and employee base. This is the starting point to create an impact on a wider social level, as it will help remove psychological barriers to participation in sports.
Reimagining Sports and Wellness
The COVID‑19 crisis has disproportionately affected older people, and ageism is on the rise in this era's economy, as well.2 However, on the other, much brighter side, we know that the pandemic has ramped up our dedication to doing more about our health3; sports clubs are reopening and the wellness industry is booming. And while the benefits of staying active for all ages are enormous, Visual GPS reveals that it's increasingly more about psyche than physique. The emotional well‑being that sports offer is as compelling as the physical benefits, with nearly 8 in 10 European Baby Boomers stating that engaging with sports is good for one's mental health. In addition, 9 in 10 said it's equally important to take care of themselves emotionally as well as physically.

With this increasing importance of a holistic approach to wellness, visual storytelling that represents a broad spectrum of proactive self‑care moments is likely to resonate with audiences. Exercising with family and pets, or relieving everyday stresses through late‑night football games are just a few examples of emotionally engaging visual scenarios. However, our research confirms, seniors engaged in sport are most likely to be represented alone, and 80% of visuals focus solely on exercise. Still, the visual possibilities are endless. Our special collections around sports and aging such as the partnership with Women in Sports on Menopause Collection4, as well as the Disrupt Aging collection5, both endeavour to help bring this richness to the forefront and push the visual language forward. Age is not a barrier, it's just a number.
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