inPERSPECTIVE: 10 Ways to Engage Gen Z in College Recreation

If campus recreation does not adjust to Gen Z, their participation will wane. According to Recreation Management's 2021 State of the Industry Report (June 2021), on average, schools are investing $6.1 million in improvements to campus recreation facilities to gain competitive advantage and differentiate from each other. Investments on that scale in the face of decreasing usage would be a failure difficult to justify. Here's a list of 10 recommendations to appeal to these newest consumers and engage them in campus recreation programs.

1. Enhance the campus recreation experience through technology implementations

Technology has been in the hands of Gen Z since they were born. To them the cell phone is so much more than a means of communication technology; it's at the root of making money and investment in their social lives. According to a review of 42 articles, 80% of the Gen Z population wants to work with technology. Gen Z are also wellness consumers who enjoy tracking their activity. A UNiDAYS survey said 65% of this population is using fitness apps, and 28% depend on wearable technology for tracking workouts. Gen Z values the benefits of technology and data in their workouts. This is something campus recreation can incorporate through heart rate monitors, cycling metrics and more.

2. Create inclusive and welcoming programming for relieving stress and anxiety

It is no secret that physical activity stimulates the body and the mind. In fact, working out pumps the body's endorphins, reducing the negative effects of stress. Programming such as yoga, meditation and restorative activities can be beneficial after an intense cardio or lifting session. Research shows more screen time leads to depressive symptoms. In an article in The Atlantic, teens who spend 10 or more hours a day on technology are 56% more likely to be unhappy than those who spend less time on social media. Campus recreation should provide options that are not technology-driven in order to raise students' serotonin levels while giving them an outlet to relieve stress.

3. Become more accessible

Inclusion of students, faculty and staff who have disabilities is important to Gen Z. Well-established research demonstrates improved performance for web pages that promote accessibility. It appeals broadly to Gen Z, reaching beyond those included in the sub-population. College recreation may provide these types of accessibility, but it is not making it part of their marketing materials, photos and language. Marketing materials should feature this subset of the population.

4. Promote green activities and efforts

According to an SGB media article in 2021, 83% of respondents who are Gen Z consider themselves environmentalists. It would be in the interest of campus recreation to promote and implement the ways in which campus recreation is fostering sustainability and promoting an eco-friendly environment. A sizable 69% of survey respondents said this issue affects them both physically and mentally. If campus recreation can build awareness of "green" efforts and impacts, it would appeal to Gen Z and perhaps even engender their support through participation in activities that focused on the environment. This could create a positive halo effect that extends to the recreation center overall.

5. Message low- or no-cost value

Gen Z is looking for a high-quality education that will allow them to become financially independent with minimal debt. It is important for campus recreation to add value without adding cost. It would not be in campus recreation's best interest to charge for fitness classes. Instead, it would be better if fees were included in student tuition. With a focus on cost consciousness, promotions to Gen Z should message the benefits of the programs that are free. College recreation should consider incentives such as free shirts, free fitness classes or anything else that would allow students to work out without the worries of financial stress.

6. Offer programming that caters to all niches of students

Traditional intramural sports have been the focus of many college recreation programs and facilities. However, students' interests have greatly expanded to a large array of physical activities and sports. Colleges have started to entertain a wider variety of programming with various levels of competitiveness, which has opened the door for more students to participate. This expansion is likely to continue. The types of programming offered matter deeply to college students, as shown in a study titled, "The Benefits of Campus Recreation." In the study in 2014, Dr. Scott Forrester stated, "62% of students report that campus recreation programs influenced their decision of which college/university to attend." Clearly, the kind of programming offered should appeal to the broadest student population possible and cater to all groups of people.

7. Promote the academic success/retention rate from involvement

Literature demonstrates that physical activity contributes to academic success. A study conducted by researchers at North Carolina State University in 2014 found that every additional hour spent exercising in a college recreation facility led to a higher chance of graduating or coming back to school next year. In addition, students will often stay committed to a college based on their experiences within the recreation facility. The same study found that 74% of students believed that the college recreation facility had an influence in their decisions to continue attending their chosen college.

8. Incentivize students

The implementation of a rewards program is important to people who belong to the Gen Z cohort. As described in a study in 2018, 87% of Gen Z values rewards. More than any other generation, Gen Z looks for specific benefits from an activity when compared to its price. College recreation facilities can easily implement reward programs to promote higher participation.

9. Stronger utilization of social media

Social media continues to grow as a dominant force in society. It can be an influential tool in getting Gen Z to engage in a certain action. A recent study by Campaign Monitor in 2017 found that this target segment is most likely to buy a product after seeing it on social media. In addition, Gen Z engages on a wide variety of social media platforms. According to Pew Research, they will interact with up to five different social media platforms every day. These statistics emphasize the need to develop effective college recreation messaging on a variety of social media platforms.

10. Improved website design and functionality

Technology is a driver in so much of our daily lives, college recreation websites need to adapt. To attract more Gen Z students, websites should provide clear and quick information. Gen Z has a short attention span. Critical information about a college recreation facility needs to be obvious and efficient. Developing mobile-friendly websites is imperative given their dependency on mobile devices. College recreation websites should become a mechanism to foster engagement with their consumers, driving the highest participation at their facilities. RM



Julia Morris is an undergraduate at the University of Dayton studying Sports Management. She is looking to go into HR, sales, marketing or event management. Zackary Ziegler is an undergraduate at the University of Dayton studying Sports Management. He has an interest in pursuing his career in event management and marketing. University of Dayton Professor Peter Titlebaum's areas of expertise include marketing, sales, fundraising, activation, return on investment and return of objective strategies.