Three weeks ago, English football club Chelsea asked its fans in China for their most emotional stories about the club, and the post on Weibo reached 6.2 million hashtag reads. Last week, the club delivered a two-hour livestream special in China across Weibo and Douyin. The production—filmed at Mailman's Shanghai studio—included a live musical performance, live dial-ins from fans, and several giveaways.
This is just one example of how sporting leagues and teams have been continuing to engage with fans during an unprecedented period of lockdowns, border shutdowns, and isolation.
“We’re seeing increasing demand by leagues, teams, and athletes to create content to fill this void,” says Mailman CEO Andrew Collins.
“We see it as an opportunity to strengthen the community through a shared experience. Most have suffered the same isolation, they’ve all missed their favourite teams and the clubs can play a role in energising its [fan] community. It’s been novel to see a fresh side to some of the athletes, and to see that the teams have adjusted reasonably well.”
Some other examples include Tottenham Hotspur promoting live Q&As with their top players, Manchester United interacting with Chinese actor Lu Han as part of the ‘toilet roll challenge’ , Borussia Dortmund holding a virtual fan party, and the NHL expanding its #HockeyatHome challenge.
Major sports academies, including (the late) Kobe Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy are now delivering training regimes to do at home, and top-tier athletes including Tyson Fury and Cristiano Ronaldo have begun filming their workouts.
“The challenge for teams [and athletes] is very quickly understanding their roles and ensuring their teams are equipped to serve their community as their demand has skyrocketed. We all want to feel part of something, the teams provide a unique bond that unites them all,” says Collins.
On the brand side, Nike online sales were up 30% in China in the last quarter. While this was largely driven by offline retail plummeting, Collins argues that this can also be attributed to the brand creating content around at-home workouts and other ‘health & fitness’ branded content.
How are broadcasters and OTT platforms managing?
Because rightsholders have not been able to distribute live content, they’re finding creative ways to put out original content and engage with fans. Archived content is also on the rise with more fans revisiting past games during this downtime.
Malcolm Thorpe, Southeast Asia managing director at Lagardère Sports, says that the opportunity for fans to go back and watch historic games from the past has been well-received.
“[Archival content] has been a very smart and, to be honest, a very easy filler. FIFA, UEFA, La Liga, the Asean Football Federation, and many others are opening up their archives and filling those slots in the calendar,” he says.
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But archival content doesn’t solve the issue of broadcasters suffering from reduced brand spend and gaping ad spots. Thorpe says one thing broadcasters are doing is making spots available for public, community or government messaging.
However, OTT and subscription-based sporting platforms have not taken as hard a beating during this time. Many including WWE Network, Amazon Prime India, and Spark in New Zealand have offered subscription holidays, lowered paywalls, or have made selected content free-for-all to lure new users with the hopes of converting them to paid users post-outbreak.
“This is a smart move because not only does it show that they're aware and sympathetic to the financial issues that subscribers may be having now, but it also allows them to broaden the content and grow the audience for that content. And when all this is over, I’m sure [the platforms] will be collecting data and they would be in touch with that broader group of people,” says Thorpe.
Mailman’s Collins adds that rightsholders and traditional broadcasters are now competing for eyeballs directly from their entertainment counterparts such as Netflix, Amazon Prime and iQiyi, all which are platforms with original content and are expected to see gains during this period.
Could this mean COVID-19 is pushing traditional broadcasters to the wayside? Jack Cantwell, client director at iProspect, says that the shift was evident even before the pandemic.
“The way that sport is consumed had already been shifting, to being more digitally skewed,” he says.
“With NFL’s Game Pass, a global audience can access NFL content digitally. Amazon’s Premier League deal not only gave access to games to a new audience, but also offered new tech such as the ability to mute commentary and just have sounds of the crowd. This is a user choice and experience that had previously never been offered by broadcasters and content creators. It’s also suggested that the Premier League will offer its own streaming service in the not-too-distant future.”
Why social media is thriving
If we could pick a winner to emerge from this unexpected circumstance, we’d hand the trophy to social media. Lagardère’s Thorpe says there’s been a “huge explosion” of content on social media directly from rightsholders whether they be the leagues, clubs, or the athletes themselves.
A simple, engaging way that’s been done so far is the #StayAtHome challenge or hashtag that have taken all social platforms by storm. Thorpe says some of the challenges may be sports-related but they don’t always have to be.
The International Table Tennis Federation is an excellent case study. As a fan engagement proposition, the Singapore-based group called upon fans to create the ‘longest-ever table tennis rally’ from their own homes. The result is a video mash-up of people from around the world hitting a ball across their makeshift tennis tables using everyday objects such as a vacuum cleaner, mobile phone, or even an empty egg carton.
Groups have also been using social media to push out public health and safety announcements, whether it’s FIFA partnering with WHO or the NBA advising fans how to help their communities.
This hive of activity on social platforms is where brands could slide in, according to Thorpe. But of course, brands should always keep in mind empathy, relevance, and usefulness.
“The opportunity is for brands to create their own related content around this new activity. But it's all about brands being smart about how they're positioning themselves and the type of messaging. What brands need to be doing at this time is slightly different from what they would normally be doing,” he says.
“There isn’t such a formalised process around [brand involvement in this case] as it's a lot more reactive, and because of that, it can be a lot more creative. You don't want to be posting footage of an elderly chairman making a minute-long video about how seriously the brand is handling it. Is it really what people want at this stage? I think you've got to be a bit more engaging in order to really come through and show people that you that you really do care.”
One success story via social media through this period has been the Australian men’s soccer team which partnered up with Twitter to live tweet a replay of a classic FIFA qualifier match between Australia and Uruguay. The result was 1.9 million impressions and a slew of excited, rejuvenated fans in a period of downtime.
Rahul Pushkarna, senior director, head of APAC content partnerships at Twitter, says that his team has been inundated with requests from sports rightsholders around the world looking for appropriate and creative content opportunities.
“We have been working with our partners to explore creative ways of starting positive conversations among online sports communities, bringing athletes and players closer to their fan base through virtual Q&As, or just capturing light-hearted trends that can bring some ‘good vibes’ to people,” says Pushkarna.
Overall, Twitter’s quarter-to-date average total monetisable daily active usage (mDAU) has been up 23% from this time last year.
In China, Mailman’s Collins says that during the first 30 days of the lockdown in China, the company observed an 80% increase in digital engagement across leading sports teams on Weibo. Plus, live-streaming—already a phenomenon in China—saw an even bigger boom with platforms such as Douyin recording a 57.3% spike in active users during the Lunar New Year holiday. In the same period, iQiYi’s daily actives increased by 21.4%, and Kuaishou’s by 20.9%.
“When live sports returns, it’s going to erupt with enthusiasm online and consumption will largely stay the same. Yet we expect to see much more fan engagement. More interaction, live-streaming, polling, and organisations focused on building a closer bond with their audiences,” says Collins.
This shift in media spend in sports is a signal of change across all other verticals, according to Joe Pattison, APAC strategy & insights director at Carat.
“With lockdowns coming into force across the globe, advertisers are moving spend away from mediums that rely on footfall for their reach (such as OOH and cinema), and are maximising audience reach with in-home platforms including YouTube and social media, as well as traditional and connected TV,” he says.
“With almost no live sports, there has been an impact on brands pulling spend from sports broadcasters, but the incremental reach of traditional TV outside of sport has offered an opportunity to advertisers and broadcasters. The biggest impact is on long-term investments including sponsorships as well as global sports events that will now not take place such as Euro 2020, Olympics and Wimbledon.”
But at a time where brands are looking to protect their outgoing, Lagardère’s Thorpe says it’s important that they don’t shut off completely. He says: “Looking back to previous crises, it's been demonstrated that the brands that continue to spend through these periods very often come out better at the end of it.”