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2020 is proving to be a year of challenges and changes to the way we live, work and play

18 Sep 2020   ·   

With the pandemic affecting us all across the globe, we are having to adapt to different ways of living and working. And this is no different in the world of sport.

On the negative side, fans are either restricted or can’t attend games. The athletes are being tested on a regular basis to see if they have the virus or not and with so many games cancelled during the lockdown, media companies didn’t have any live sporting events/games to broadcast, which in turn had a financial knock-on effect to the rights holders.

We don’t yet know when a vaccine will be ready but I am pretty sure sport will go through a ‘start-stop’ season for the next period of time with many restrictions applied by the Health experts in terms of whether a live event will happen and the restrictions applied on fans attendance.

Anyway, with all this negative talk, are there any positives we can take from the pandemic? Well, my personal opinion is yes. So what are they?

‘Back to the community’ – throughout the pandemic, sports has played its part in reaching out and supporting their local communities. For example, Liverpool Football Club has been providing 1,000 meals per week for their local community as part of the club’s COVID-19 recovery response work.

‘Spending time with the family’ – the period of lockdown allowed the athletes, sports administrators, coaches and referees to take ‘time out’ with their families. Family is so important. Working in the sports industry (either on or off the field) can be so demanding on their time.

‘Acceleration of digital’ – this takes me to the key part of this article. The acceleration of digital. With the pandemic has come a number of innovations, leading to a change of behaviour and adoption of digital technology by fans, sports clubs/leagues/federations and athletes.

There are numerous examples of the acceleration of digital in the sports industry but the following are my favourite ones:

  • Athlete-driven content– During the coronavirus lockdown, many athletes have turned to their social media platforms to engage with fans. This in turn has transformed them from established athletes into important and powerful online influencers.  For example, Stephen Curry’s interview with Dr. Anthony Fauci made headlines all over the sports world and brought in an audience of 50,000 live on Instagram!
  • Rise of live streaming– The change in consumption habits during lockdown has caused a major shift in attitudes towards watching sports on digital. A recent study from live video production company Grabyo has revealed that 59 per cent of sports fans in the UK are prepared to watch sport through an online streaming platform.

In addition, the pandemic has quickened the need to engage fans in a more interactive way of using digital technology. For example, Intel’s True View technology provides clubs such as Arsenal FC with a unique viewing experience that goes above and beyond ordinary live broadcasts.  Fans can view their team’s matches from any angle or position on the pitch.

  • Sports organisations as content creators. This has been happening over the last few years but the lockdown has increased the need for clubs to provide greater insight into the club and its players. The utilisation of archived footage and athlete and fan-generated content filled the gap of live games and has now become a stable part of the content produced by the sports marketing teams. For example, FIFA made available its World Cup archive for football fans stuck at home due to coronavirus outbreak.
  • AI (Artificial Intelligence) -AI is proving to be a real innovation during this pandemic for many clubs, leagues and federations. For example,  the L.A. Clippers began dreaming up solutions about how to bring fans virtually into the live-action through their mobile app.  Through their partnership with Second Spectrum, they used artificial intelligence and machine learning to visualize data through on-screen graphic overlays.
  • Data and insight- A number of sports clubs, leagues and federations are embracing data and data insights.  This is helping sports organisations provide greater insights and aid in better decision making across all aspects of their business both on the field of play and off it. In addition, clubs are seeking to unify a single view of the customer which will help not only drive revenue but increase customer service. Alongside data and insight, a number of clubs and teams are placing a greater focus on offering a personalised service for their fans ie providing relevant content based on their needs and wants.
  • Esports and gaming- During the pandemic, we have seen a number of sports taking a leap into the esports space.

Sports organisations like the NBA, NASCAR, FIFA, FIBA and others really took on the challenge during lockdown to organise online events/tournaments.  This is helping them create new long term relationships with a younger more tech-savvy group of people.

Regarding gaming, we are seeing huge growth in this sector.  New games are coming out which are taking the ‘eyeballs’ of the traditional sports content.

For example, Mobile gaming skyrocketed during lockdown; 2.9bn people (71% of internet users, up from 63% in 2015) now play games on their smartphones (source: Newcoo, WARC Data Global Ads Trends, July 2020)

  • Elearning-  during the lockdown, we have seen an increase in the number of online learning courses being created and consumed. As many college and universities struggled with moving content online, a number of providers such as the Barça Innovation Hub, have seen growth in the number of people taking their online courses. For example, the digital sports marketing course has seen huge uptake on those taking the course during the last 3 months.

In addition to online e-learning courses, many leagues and federations took to peer-to-peer communication software platforms, to organise online coach education and club development courses for their members.

On-field has also benefits with the use of technology such as VR being used to improve training techniques for players.  For example, a Manchester-based company called Rezzil is using Virtual Reality during training with players in a number of football clubs in England.

  • Digitalising processes- The pandemic has focused our sports administrators and leaders to look at their internal and external processes and see how they can be more efficient and save time by using digital technology. For example, The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) has collaborated with Deloitte to open up tennis through digital innovation. The collaboration will leverage digital transformation with the overall objective of growing tennis in Britain.
  • WFH- When lockdown struck, many staff worked from home and used digital tools such as MS Teams, Zoom, iCloud, CRM etc. This resulted in a change in behaviour and culture. It is now more acceptable to have a video call rather than travel 1 or 2 days for a meeting; saving the sports organisation time and money.

Final thoughts

From a digital point of view, sports clubs, leagues and federations must:

  1. Continue to engage and be part of their community using digital (and face to face) programmes.
  2. Improve customer satisfaction – both online and offline. Be a fan-focused organisation.
  3. Retain and grow their fans using digital (reducing churn rates).
  4. Utilize the power of digital internally (SVC, data, personalisation etc)
  5. Make sure digital is just not IT or Marketing’s role – its everyone role!

The future of sport maybe still unclear as the pandemic threatens to impact our events & games during 2020 and beyond but as an industry, we must continue to engage our audience, community and embrace digital.


Geoff Wilson (@geoffwnjwilson)


Building the future of the sports industry