An Unprecedented Situation in Sports. What Now?
If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past months, you might have noticed that there hasn’t been that much live sport since mid-March. Aside from various Esport events and the UFC with its plans on continuing putting on shows, most of the world’s sports leagues are currently on hold due to the pandemic we’ve all come to know as COVID-19.
The grim outlook and the uncertainty surrounding most sports has of course severely impacted a lot of leagues and clubs financially. Much like companies in various other sectors, it didn’t take long before sports teams had to make the difficult decisions to lay off their staff. Many fans have been stunned to learn how dire the situation actually is. The sudden end of a season (or delay in the upcoming one) has exposed to the public how little actually separates sports clubs from being "broke" and financially sound.
Public health guidelines, social distancing and in some countries even restrictions on being outside, have of course presented sports organisations with an unprecedented situation which has made it impossible to continue their daily businesses and ways of working. With news now coming in on some countries looking to opening and/or loosening some of the restrictions, we’re still far from going back to normal.
However, it’s not only doom and gloom. Unsurprisingly, many clubs have stepped up and reacted to this challenge, and while some have stayed passive - most clubs have actively been pushing new initiatives to the best of their ability.
A wake-up call
Don’t misunderstand me, I’d rather see all sport go back to normal and continue the respective seasons. Heck, the year when Finland finally qualifies for the EURO’s, a pandemic comes along and makes fans wait even longer…
While being in a full-blown crisis mode for months on end isn’t what you’d wish any organisation, the pandemic has forced the hand of many organisations to proactively shine a light at some areas of improvement. Be it dated ways of working in regard to the sale of tickets and merchandise or perhaps a club's social media presence – the landscape has changed, and now is the time to innovate.
The scale on which teams might be looking to innovate is of course dependent on how big a club is. Professional North American teams or let’s say a Premier League team might be looking at solutions which are completely disproportionate when compared to local teams in e.g. the Nordics. As an example, there have been talks about North American teams looking into the possibility to sell digital VR seats to games if their respective seasons would continue. Interestingly enough, for some leagues, such as the NHL, both the tech and partnership is already in place. But while industry leaders are thinking about large, possible industry changing innovations, smaller local Nordic clubs need to figure out how to make ends meet in the near future.
It’s no secret that especially clubs in the lower divisions and also clubs in lesser known sports are basically operating on a month-to-month basis from a financial viewpoint. What this means is that a sudden stop to a season, with let’s say a remaining 5 home games, might mean a loss of income which would’ve immediately been used to cover costs such as salaries, venue and training facility costs. Many clubs are now tasked with a mission to quickly find and develop new potential revenue streams so that they can at least ride out the storm.
Luckily, the Nordic sports landscape has the past months seen many great initiatives to tackle the pandemic. Be it a complete revision of a club’s marketing and sales strategy or asking its community for help, many of the initiatives will most likely become integral parts of at least some organisations’ campaigns in the upcoming years.
As an example, the Stockholm-based sports clubs DIF Fotboll and DIF Hockey got together and started a campaign to help each other survive the pandemic. Even though the organisations share the same name, they are run as separate entities. Quite understandably they do however have overlapping (if not the same) fanbases, so the campaign made sense for both organisations as well as the fans. The campaign, #TillsammansFörDIF, basically sold “support tickets”, meaning tickets which didn’t grant admission to a specific game, but to help both organisations’ put on games in the future. The point here was to ask for help from the clubs’ community in these trying times and the proceeds from the tickets (sold for SEK50 a piece) were to be used to help both organisations survive the pandemic. The campaign ended mid-April and was a huge success as over 38.200 support tickets were sold.
Content, content, content
I don’t envy the people working in sports communication and social media right now. Be it live streamed interviews on Zoom between players or videos on Instagram of players practicing in their own homes, marketing and social media teams are currently pulling out all the stops to produce interesting content to keep their fan base happy and engaged in a time when the uncertainty regarding sports is ever-present.
When nothing is happening on the court, how do you come up with interesting content to keep your followers engaged in a time when there really isn’t that much to be excited about? Some have turned to streaming virtual games by way of simulation through a video game, fan raffles and even revisiting old games to keep their community engaged.
Hilariously, the pandemic has presented us with some funny examples of smaller club’s punching way above their weight-class – or how would you describe the epic connect-4 game between Finnish first division football club KTP and Bayer 04 Leverkusen?
TikTok surges in downloads
With people sitting mostly at home, the need for entertainment is high which can be seen in the amount of app downloads. The biggest winner here has been TikTok, which has seen a surge in downloads during the pandemic. With people spending even more screen time, new opportunities present themselves. This has become evident as more and more non-American teams have joined the short-form video service. As an example, Football club Arsenal launched their own account just a couple of weeks ago and now joins the likes of AC Milan, Liverpool, FC Barcelona and the IOC on TikTok. According to Arsenal, the club will use its new account, aimed particularly at the clubs younger fans, to produce content including behind-the-scenes footage, exclusive access to first-team stars, exclusive mini-series, as well as memorable goals and celebrations.
With fans not being able to attend games as they have in the past, it’s now up to the sports teams to produce content on various channels to keep fans invested. It will be interesting to see if and how content of professional- and semi-professional teams will develop once the leagues are restarted again. If I’d have to guess, fans can look forward to some additional back-stage access and more interaction between players and fans – perhaps even mid-game?
So… what now?
It goes without saying that eventually, live sports will continue. The manner in which games will be played will however most likely differ from what we as fans have become accustomed to. We did get a taste of this right in the beginning of the pandemic, with some games being played in empty arenas. Unfortunately, this will most likely be how games and events will be organised for the forseeable future.
If you'd like to read more on some of the necessary steps needed in order to safely continue sports on a high level, be sure to check out Sports Illustrated great article.
Also, let’s not forget that even though a country might be opening up to allow for smaller organised events to take place, it doesn’t necessarily mean that a league might be ready to go. As seen yesterday, the Finnish government has decided to slowly ease on its restrictions and beginning in June - allow for organised events as long as they are held under the 50 people threshold. For Finnish League football, this will most likely prove to be difficult as a league game, even if attending personnel is kept to a bare minimum, easily involves more than 50 people (if broadcasted). As there will be no attendance at the games – it goes without saying that the games need to be broadcasted if there is to be any point in playing at all.
The situation will eventually begin to normalise. Exactly when this will happen, nobody knows. However, when it's all said on done, the pandemic will have most likely changed people’s perception on how and what a sports club can and should offer its fanbase. Be it different ways to support ones club as a fan or the way you watch a game - new initiatives will most likely become mainstays.
If there ever was time to try new things and break the tradition of doing things a certain way, it’s now. If not now, then when?