Jonah Stillman just graduated from Minnetonka High School this past spring and told me that he already has a desk in the Vikings' headquarters. "Like a corner office?" I asked.
"Oh no, it's not a static thing," he said. "I'm still just on entry level, so I'm kind of a floater—I'm meeting with a lot of different people, so I'm in no way stuck with one aspect of the team. I'm not anywhere specific."
Stillman is using a gap year between high school and college to take on a role as "Gen Z Advisor" with the Minnesota Vikings. It's a role carved out to help reach the generation that comes after millennials—the offspring of Gen Xers—with new digital strategies.
In the Vikings' words, Stillman is consulting "on a variety of club business initiatives, including team marketing and fan activation efforts, Vikings Entertainment Network (VEN) and digital media content and strategy, U.S. Bank Stadium fan experience... and workplace culture." Essentially, Stillman is a generational communicator, bridging the gap of what works with people his age to old farts (my words), both as a fan base and as employees.
As a 31-year-old myself, I was curious about what, exactly differentiates Gen Z from their older counterparts, the millennials. I was under the impression that we were all in the same, somewhat uncomfortable boat.
"Millennials grew up in a time of economic prosperity, pre-9/11, pre-2009 recession, and the message they were fed by their Boomer parents was that if you try, at the end of the day, you can be a champion," Stillman told me.
I should have seen this generational kick in the balls coming. But Stillman helped assuage some of my self-loathing.
"And that instilled a lot of confidence in the millennial generation, and that's, like I said, not necessarily a bad thing, but it's very different from the message I was given," he continued. "I was raised post-9/11 in the midst of the 2009 recession, and watched my parents and across the board, Gen Z's parents stripped of what they earned. We were told that there were winners and losers. It's not always a very pretty work world out there, and if you don't work your ass off, there's a good chance you'll be a loser. Gen Z, compared to Millennials, is a very very competitive generation at a younger age."
At first blush, it seems like this Gen Z crowd is a good fit with the NFL.
Stillman insists that his generation is already locked in to football—Madden and fantasy sports helped solidify that. Now it's just about keeping people engaged.
Nevertheless, the Vikings are probably smart to look to the next generation, because by all metrics, the NFL is losing its younger crowds. Viewership dropped by 700,000 from 2013 to 2016 in the 18-34 demographic, according to Nielsen polls. That's a large chunk of change (or bitcoin, or whatever). Stillman thinks that the Vikings' best strategy is to put their eggs into a lot more baskets than just traditional network television.
"The problem is that the platforms that we're looking for are different and we've got to be on all of those platforms. It used to be TV on a Sunday was where we got your football. We now have hundreds of options of where to get our team. So whether it be Instagram, Snapchat, YouTube, or cable TV, there are a lot of places where Gen Z lives, and having a presence on all those platforms is greatly important to people in any industry."
Stillman will spend his next year bouncing back and forth between the Vikings headquarters in Eden Prarie, Minnesota and New York to help the Vikings strategize for this new demographic. All of this alongside managing his own Gen Z consulting company, GenZGuru—which he started with his Gen X father to help communicate Gen Z's place in the market to large companies. He estimates that he'll be booked as a speaker somewhere between three and six times per month while working with the Vikings.
Even if his consulting is doing fine, Stillman admits that his time as a football player was cut short, "I played through my sophomore year of high school as a fullback, and then I stopped growing at at whopping 5'9" and 150 pounds, so I think that put a halt on my career." But that doesn't stop him from loving working with the pro team he grew up with.
"I've bled purple, if you will, for the majority of my life. I had the opportunity to go to games at the old Metrodome, and now getting to work with them at US Bank is a dream."
Any particular players he's excited to work alongside?
"Like I said, I've always loved the Vikings as a team. You name the player, I love them."
Seems that Gen Z is fairly diplomatic as well.