Live sport at the crossroads: fan engagement in a post-Covid world

How will brands overcome social-distancing hurdles to continue to engage with fans around sport?

On 17 June, after a three-month hiatus, football in England returned. The Premier League season resumed behind closed doors, with fans eagerly watching on TV. But with lower-league clubs and other less high-profile sports dependent on bums on seats for revenue, and sponsors not getting what they signed up for, what role can live sport play in bringing brands to fans?

"Throughout this recent period, we have seen demand from fans for new formats, enhanced communications and a more equitable distribution of content," Rob O'Siochain, client partner at TRO, says. 

"Covid-19 is, without doubt, going to act as an accelerant for the long-awaited levelling up of the fan experience and the value attributed to the role and real data of the fan. Brands and rights holders are going to need to work far more collaboratively, strategically and creatively to build a more diverse, direct and accessible experience for the fans."

Despite many claiming the current TV offering lacks atmosphere, viewing figures have remained strong. Southampton versus Manchester City on the BBC on 5 July became the Premier League's most-watched televised match, with an audience of 5.7 million – evidence that the demand for this content remains high.

Formula One and cricket are now making their return, with F1 being well-respected in the sporting world for its broadcast compatibility. Jos Stokhuyzen, head of brand strategy at CSM Sport & Entertainment, is interested to see how cricket measures up, but with fans' appetites heightened they will be willing to accept what is given.

"In practical terms, we’re seeing empty stands and while for F1 this barely diminished the TV product, it will be interesting to see how cricket fares," Stokhuyzen observes. "Inevitably, brands have had to adapt across all sports – they’ve been reconfiguring their rights and clarifying the role they want to play.

"Football is back and drawing massive TV audiences, and no doubt cricket highlights returning to BBC will capitalise on a hungry audience."

Simon Bevan, chief investment officer at Havas Media Group, acknowledges that without funding from gate receipts, the role of brands within sport will become ever-more important.

"Sport is at a crossroads," he notes. "The stringent measures on brand engagement around key events need re-evaluation as we head into a huge year of sport in 2021, with the return of the Olympics, the Euros and the Ryder Cup. Brands must push for more flexibility, to co-create with media and rights owners, in order to show their support for returning sports and pivot fan engagement in new ways around the live event."

Alice Wainwright, senior account director at Tribal Worldwide, believes football clubs specifically can use this moment to effect real changes.

She says: "There is an opportunity for brands to stop and reflect on their modus operandi prior to Covid-19. Too many brands lazily relied on high ticket prices, insane sponsorship fees and advertising to bring in revenue. But now there’s less sport and less ‘eyes on the ball’, excuse the pun, brands will have to find other ways to profit from consumers."

Cheaper rights fees and more space for innovation could attract new brands to the sector. Matt Readman, head of strategy at Dark Horses, suggests: "It’s almost certain that the value of individual sponsorships will decrease. But that doesn’t mean overall investment in sport necessarily has to suffer. Rights holders will need to be more innovative and flexible with their partners."

A return to the stadium

When fans return to stadiums, it is expected first to be in a limited capacity – and this raises the question: how do brands now activate around their sponsorships and sports affiliations?

"The viewing experience is somewhat diminished without the energy of a live audience. So this is where brands should seek to add value. The real opportunity lies in developing activations that elevate the fans’ experience: second-screen experiences that give at-home audiences a layer of useful and fun information as the game progresses or exclusive access to talent through live-streaming," Rosh Singh, managing director, EMEA, at Unit9, explains.

Wainwright thinks the next step could be a move away from the big stadium, with "cheaper, more community-focused experiences likely to engage consumers in the short, and likely long, term".

Many pubs are wary of showing live games, due to their tendency to draw a crowd and lead to over-exuberance that go against the government's social-distancing guidelines – and this makes it difficult for brands to identify them as a hub for engagement.

Christophe Brumby, creative strategy director at Amplify, proposes "mobile and reactive satellite experiences that can be tactically deployed where live sports are being consumed right now (in betting shops, on the go on mobile and at home) and that can cater to individuals and small groups of people alike".

Brands will also be engaging fans at home who are comfortable with simultaneously watching their phone and using their device, creating an immersive experience that takes their match day beyond the broadcast game, Brumby adds.

However brands choose to engage with consumers in this period, it will be key for them to focus on ensuring their offering is fit for purpose, O'Siochain points out.

He continues: "This period has been an important warning sign to brands and rights holders, and has cruelly highlighted some of the major gaps and disparities across professional sports. Going forward, those administrating and activating across sport will need their strategies to be far more agile and fit for purpose."

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