Much has been written about how profoundly cool Joe Burrow is – and that’s really the only word anyone can find to describe him. Sometimes, there’s no other adjective that can truly capture a public figure’s appeal than simple “cool.” As OBJ said, “If you look up cool in the dictionary, there’s him in Cartier glasses.” Which is, in and of itself, a really cool quote.
Whether Burrow is a generational talent remains to be seen. Placing that label on a quarterback in just his second year can be a death sentence of expectation. He is obviously extremely talented and a formidable leader on the field despite his relative youth, and he was able to quickly turn the Bengals franchise into a force to be reckoned with. There are essays that could be written on his sur-performance on the field, and while that’s undoubtedly a major factor in his popularity, I want to look more specifically at his off-field appeal – and with it, whether he has the potential to change the NFL for the younger generation.
say it is”generational » in the sense that has been used to describe, say, Trevor Lawrence, may or may not be accurate. It’s to be interpreted, it’s very subjective, and as we saw with Lawrence, it reflects many 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’s captured the attention of a generation that has yet to felt the lure of the NFL to the extent that other American adults have.
In December we wrote on the declining interest of Gen Z Americans in professional sports, based on the results of a 2020 morning consultation survey which defined Generation Z as those between the ages of 13 and 23. Compared to 59% of all American adults, only 49% of Gen Zers surveyed describe themselves as NFL fans. When respondents were asked to name their favorite athlete, four NFL players ranked in the top 10 answers for American adults (Tom Brady at No. 1, Aaron Rodgers at No. 6, Peyton Manning at No. 7 and Patrick Mahomes at No. 1). 8), while only two made it into the top 10 for Gen Z (Tom Brady at No. 6 – obviously since retiring – and OBJ at No. 9).
So the question that remains is whether a singular figure like Burrow has enough of the “cool” factor to change the way the generation coming of age right now looks at the game of football. At 25, he is among the top of the group of respondents in 2020, but he is considered part of the younger generation. The legendary cigar kick after the LSU National Championship was his first viral moment that garnered universal appeal outside of the sometimes insular world of football.
And the cigars followed him into the pros – with cool sunglasses and cool outfits and his cool diamond pendants and his effortless, ever so cool answers to questions about all that stuff. He ignores them with a laugh, with an easy confidence that somehow avoids crossing into annoyance territory and one that he carries with him on and off the pitch (notably, getting up again and again after being sacked nine times a playoff record by the Titans and win the game). Football fans may enjoy watching him play, but many people – fans or not – simply enjoy him.
Burrow’s face is all over TikTok, and only sometimes in the context of his skills on the court — videos of him dancing and smoking cigars, montages of him walking in slow motion, “best drip” compilations, revisits of his old tweets ( a highlight from 2013: “Urban Meyer looks like Jimmy Neutron’s Sheen”), and funny interview moments pop up frequently. His Instagram captions consist of Office quotes, jokes about his own beard and references to SpongeBob SquarePants. Without his talent, he wouldn’t have the national recognition and platform he has, but the Bengals’ newfound adoration for the star transcends his elite game. He’s got the personality, he’s got the look, and he’s got the appeal that the younger generation of the NFL so desperately lacks. (Patrick Mahomes suffers from a general dislike for his brother and, to some extent, his fiancée. Mahomes also has a child, which makes him feel older, even though he’s only 26.)
Here’s the thing, though — fame is so incredibly fleeting these days, especially in the way we’re seeing Burrow explode online. Now, I have no doubt he will remain popular, closely watched, and well known to Bengals and NFL fans alike. His football stardom won’t one day fade because of a new trend – but the allure he offers to potential fans and viewers not yet interested in his freshness off the pitch may be short-lived.
It’s hard to say if the final result of this Sunday’s Super Bowl will affect that. He’s got a lot of exposure right now because of the upcoming game, but even with a win the media cycle will shift to something or someone else. Could its cultural impact cause growth or a resurgence of new fans in the next NFL season?
And could it make Cincinnati cool? Super Bowl victory on Sunday or not, the Gen Z bandwagon could come flocking to a very loyal, small-market fan base. Brady’s comparisons are obviously far too early and have very little merit at this time, but Brady has reached a level of stardom where advertisers and broadcasters have benefited from his television presence in terms of viewership and engagement. . So while we’ve seen just one gamer make this kind of difference before, the problem is how few Gen Zers actually watch live sports compared to Gen Y and other American adults.
There may never be another Brady because the viewership and fandom has changed so much in the past two decades he’s played. But maybe there’s a new opening for someone young and cool like Burrow to affect the 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 iconism that has the potential to make casual and non-casual fans of the younger generation watch the NFL and perhaps even become attached to Cincinnati’s ‘he stays.