New balls and rules for Asia, please

Sports organising bodies and entrepreneurs are stepping up to the plate to deliver new formats and fast-paced tournaments that will engage today’s connected Asian audiences.

The T2 Asia-Pacific Table Tennis League is among the sports shaking up the way competitive athletics are marketed, organised and viewed across the region.
The T2 Asia-Pacific Table Tennis League is among the sports shaking up the way competitive athletics are marketed, organised and viewed across the region.

The Holy Grail for many sports fans is a trip to the stadium, where one can almost taste the tension amongst the dirt, the dust, and the sweat. But can matches played and shot in studios provide just as tempting an alternative?

Singapore-based entrepreneur Frank Ji believes so. This year, he launched the T2 Asia-Pacific (T2 Apac) Table Tennis League — a pan-regional competition designed largely for digital consumption. Features include a virtual T2 Arena, ultra-slow motion presentation, time limits for each match and a whopping US$1.5 million prize money cache. Across Asia, traditional games are being rebooted — often in shortened, faster-paced formats that suit online audiences — to attract new fans, better sponsorship, and bigger bucks.

Innovations in sport have been made throughout history: examples include the one-day international in cricket, first played in the 1970s. It helped bring in a younger generation who did not have the time, or patience, to sit through the customary days-long match. As recently as February this year, Australia debuted a new professional golf format: the Perth World Super 6. Following three days of conventional golf, with 18 holes, the last day sees players competing on six holes only. The final will be played on a 90-metre-hole: and if there’s a tie, a single shot will decide the winner. The more fast-paced game is an attempt to attract younger players in a sport that is losing popularity.

Short game: The Perth World Super 6 tournament featured only six holes on the final day.

Changing the rules is one thing. But the advent of digital media has also brought in a multitude of other possibilities, introducing developments that make sport as much about entertainment as about the game. 

That innovations are happening in Asia — home to a growing middle class — is no accident. “The traditional sports, particularly in Europe and the US, have really reached a degree of saturation: it’s very difficult for them to grow significantly,” says Craig Roberts, head of strategy for Asia-Pacific at Gemba, a sport and entertainment agency. “New sponsors, new markets — that’s the big driver.”

Sports bodies are taking note. Tokyo will host the 2019 Rugby World Cup and 2020 Summer Olympics and Beijing the 2022 Winter Olympics. In the past “it would have been unthinkable to have three major global competitions that close to each other in Asia”, adds Roberts. “But it’s happening. There is huge demand here, huge population, and huge potential for growth.”

Gemba estimates that there are now twice as many football fans in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand combined than in the entirety of the UK, France, Germany, and Spain. China sees four times that many again and its president, Xi Jinping, wants to build the world’s largest sports economy: predictions say that the Chinese industry will be worth US$850 billion by 2025.

For sports bodies, this means a re-orientation around Asia in terms of time zones, fan base, and distribution of content. Opportunities for expansion are available on three counts: digital engagement, event experiences, and mass participation.

Of these, in an era in which workers are cash richer but time poorer, digital offers the most far-reaching promise. Creating online content is about “providing great access, insight and knowledge into the sport — for example, around the star players,” says Ross Collett, managing director at Roco Communications in Singapore.

The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) — representing the likes of Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova and Li Na, now household names — is one success story.

NBA-style serving: The International Premier Tennis League has tried to emulate the experience of attending an NBA game.

“Where the WTA has done very well is how it utilises and presents its principle assets — the players,” says Collett. “These players have extended the reach of tennis well beyond the core fans and in doing so have driven up TV audiences, ticket sales, sponsor value, not to mention their own earnings in the process.”

While short-form content, including game highlights, has long featured in TV broadcasting, the surge in digital consumption has added new levels of possibility.

“Short videos, including extraordinary goals/catches, team profiles and key features of a concluded tournament, are just some of the examples of the kind of new content that is coming up,” says Jaideep Ghosh, partner, chief operating officer and sector head of transport, leisure and sports at KPMG India.

“People do not have the time to consume too much content while going about their daily lives, but they do want to know everything that is happening around and do not want to miss out on key developments.”

Social media, in particular, is often a group experience that buys into a similar feeling of cohesion as when fans get together physically. “What our research often points to is that people still want close games, want more moments of consequence, and the social platforms enable those shorter-form highlights to live and be amplified beyond the core audience sitting down to watch the whole game,” points out Roberts. 

For those who do want to get off their couch and into a live event, marketers must take into account not just die-hard fans but the whole family — who might be deciding, in one weekend, whether to go to a sports match, a fashion show, or a concert. With increased competition, cultural understanding is critical to creating more inclusive experiences. Key is asking who attends and why: Is it about the golf, the music, the food, or all three?

“Sport can’t be separated from entertainment these days,” insists Roberts. “It’s competing against a much wider set of activities and experiences. Sports stadium designs are being thought of as precincts where it is about the end-to-end fan journey: having dinner before, seeing the game, having a drink after. Not just what happens between the starting whistle and finishing whistle.”

With this in mind, sponsoring brands must look for ways to stand out to provide fans with a better experience. Khushil Vaswani, vice-president, sports, at Weber Shandwick in Singapore, gives the example of the Australian Open. “Fans were able to take advantage of new payment innovation platforms to purchase F&B using their phones — meaning that they didn’t have to miss a point or a game-changing moment because they were waiting in line for F&B — all created by a sponsor.”

Tips for better attendance include tailoring individual ticketing packages (helped along by the explosion of ecommerce and ticketing apps), knowing your audience by analysing data from ticket, food and beverage sales, and tailoring products and the experience to individual groups.

While China presents one major opportunity, India presents another. Sixty-five percent of the world’s second most populous nation are under 35 years old and digital advertising spend is expected to grow 30.8 per cent to reach 294.5 billion rupees (US$4.5 billion) by 2021.

Pit stop: Dwindling audiences and falling returns have prompted Malaysia to drop its Formula One contract next year.

“Apart from the promotion of sports to encourage participation, marketers are also looking at multiple sports to build brands in India,” says Ghosh. That includes cricket — still India’s most popular game — but also kabaddi, badminton and football, the next top three sports, which are fast catching up.

In 2014, the inaugural International Premier Tennis League (IPTL) was created, as Indian founder Mahesh Bhupathi stated, to bring “NBA-style entertainment” to a sport known more for champagne and strawberries than rowdy cheerleaders.

Played across Asia, the game is shortened and players are organised into teams, creating a greater sense of competition. The matches are both more fast-paced (with five-minute shootouts, for example) and more amenable to TV screens. Innovations include beeping noises that erupt when a player is slow to begin a play and DJ music between points. It’s a far cry from the traditional whites of Wimbledon.

But while IPTL’s inaugural year started with a bang attracting celebrity players, last year saw its appeal falter with Roger Federer and Serena Williams being axed and the event’s scope reduced from five tournaments to three. IPTL has offered a cautionary lesson to marketers: yes, the new format is exciting to watch but — with top players demanding massive compensation, not to mention other costs including stadium hire and promotion — is it financially viable?

Formula One has also faltered in Asia — Malaysia is not extending its Formula One Grand Prix contract when it expires next year, largely due to poor financial returns and reduced attendance. Singapore, too, saw a 16 percent drop in attendance in 2016 compared to 2015.  

Meanwhile, sports marketers are struggling with a lack of clarity around return on investments. 

“While advertisers are increasingly latching on to [social media] platforms to target the mobile, on-the-go youth in [places like] India, these platforms are yet to settle down with stable business models ensuring safe returns as in the case of TV,” says Ghosh.

Despite the hurdles, it is worth remembering that sports are “the ultimate in social currency”, says Vaswani. “They bring out a level of passion and talkability that can be understood and shared across a multitude of languages and cultures.” 

New formats, developed in the right way, can serve to enhance engagement for fans — even when the games are played out in studios, rather than stadiums.

How Rugby Sevens rules the roost

Carnival mood: Fancy dress and hijinks are Sevens traditions.

The HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series — made up of 10 tournaments played in cities as diverse as Dubai, Hong Kong and Las Vegas — understands that success comes down to entertainment as much as sport. In turn, that benefits everyone, from fans to players, broadcasters, sponsors, and governing bodies.

It is critical that “local promoters and governing bodies understanding the local landscape and creating the right event experience for visitors — which goes well beyond what happens on the rugby pitch”, says Ross Collett, MD of Roco Communications.

So in addition to the world-class contest, organisers have created a carnival-like atmosphere, which draws in locals as well as tourists who often travel for the event. Fancy dress, live music, plentiful food and drink, plus a well-provided corporate event system and sponsor villages, makes the Sevens a must-visit annual destination event.

“Conversely, some of the more traditional rugby heartlands such as Japan and Wellington, New Zealand, have struggled to find the right formula to fill stadiums,” says Collett. “But their loss has been fans’ gain in new markets like Singapore.”


Campaign Asia

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