The world is changing in significant ways and marketers need to understand and navigate the new landscape in the short and long term. In this series, our Research & Insight teams from around the world delve into different sectors and trends, and share their learnings.

First up - Saad Abukhadra looks at the impact Covid-19 is having on sport, how consumer behaviours are shifting and what brands can do to react now, and prepare for the future.

“The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be postponed, likely to 2021”

“Euro 2020 postponed for a year by UEFA because of coronavirus crisis”

“Serie A has not had a season cancelled since World War II”

These are just some of the headlines we have seen over the last few weeks. Initially it appeared likely that sporting events would be played behind closed doors, but the situation escalated quickly and most sports have been postponed. We are now in uncharted territory.

Europe’s top five football leagues alone account for a combined stadium capacity of 3.7 million fans. Add in other major sports fans from cricket, tennis, basketball and you have a global dormant audience waiting to have new moments to celebrate. After most governing bodies indefinitely postponed matches, fans began counting the days with no sport, even sharing interesting ‘alternatives’ such as marble racing (yes we’re getting desperate). 

With no sports entertainment and now forced to reside at home, what can brands do to fill the void?

A state of desperation 
Fans are mourning the loss of sport by sharing their disappointment on social media. A spike in conversations between March 8-14 (4.9m mentions) was driven by tweets such as this, showcasing the self deprecating humour fans are exhibiting after losing sport. Other tweets demonstrate the loss of purpose and sadness of fans, feeling the effect of their day without sport. 

From when Covid-19 first led to the cancellation of sporting events (January 22) to now, there is a clear indication that fans are still talking about sport - their interest has not waned just because live action is not taking place. 

Time to innovate 
We’ve seen football clubs have success by going back to basics, using games such as noughts and crosses (X & O) and connect four to engage with fans. Southampton FC, who led the initiative with a game of X & O, generated an average of 19.7k likes vs its average level of 104 likes. But as great and novel as these activations are, they’re no alternative to the real thing. So how do brands keep audiences engaged over time? 

The solution is to create an ongoing stream of engaging and interesting content that can change and adapt throughout the period. The nature of sport is fast paced and rarely takes a break. Giving these fans something to look forward to regularly will help fill the void of looking forward to a matchday. Brands could consider ways of replacing the buildup to a matchday for example, asking fans to submit alternative lineup announcements using toilet paper rolls for the formation.  

So far, sports teams have relied upon content in the bank to entertain fans. Those that want to stand out, however, will need to go further - use some of the newer tools and functionalities social media has to offer to rewrite the rules. Stories Polls to select a club's most iconic players. IGTV chats with star athletes to enjoy a sporting highlight together, or challenges such as the #stayathomechallenge that taps into the competitiveness of sport and brings people together (484.9m views on TikTok, 443k conversations on Twitter, 84.4k posts on Instagram). The need to consume content hasn’t gone away, it’s now a case of adapting and flexing.

Looking beyond sport
When they are not looking for alternative sports entertainment, fans may be watching movies, catching up with friends or cooking - basically anything. So sports brands should think laterally in how they can play a role in the lives of fans while there’s no sport happening. 

The role of a brand is to build and maintain loyalty, so being able to drive innovation into sport by tapping into related categories will lead to this. For example, combining sport and food by inviting a sports nutritionist to prepare a meal fit for an athlete like Lewis Hamilton. This will appeal to sports fans whilst also casting the net wider to attract a new audience. 

Another category to explore is sports and gaming. These fans have significant natural overlap and affinity, with some of the biggest gaming titles based on sports. The number of hours streamed on Twitch has increased 15% over the past few days, which suggests fans are looking for entertainment elsewhere. Sport stars have joined the action, streaming games ranging from Fifa, Fortnite and Formula 1. Mesut Ozil for example, has recently been generating over 40k views playing Fortnite. 

Makeshift replacements in the sporting calendar have also seen a surge of interest, with F1 driver Lando Norris competing in a virtual version of the Australian GP pulling 70,000 viewers, 60,000 viewers watching Sevilla FC star Sergio Reguilón take on Real Betis footballer Borja Iglesias and an NBA 2K simulation campaign pulling almost 20,000 viewers.   

While fans will miss being able to see their favourite athletes in action, this offers a unique opportunity to see their athletes in a different light and connect over their shared isolation. Whether it's James Milner cutting the grass, or Novak Djokovic sharing his drawing skills (or lack thereof), they want to see what athletes' lives are like when they have to isolate.

Preparing for a slow return
We have seen how sport feels with an empty stadium. A muted atmosphere. 

During the Champions League tie between Paris Saint German and Borussia Dortmund, it was clear that asking fans to stay away from important sporting events is a challenge. These fans miss out on the face to face interaction of being in the stadium or the pub and not having an avenue to channel their support.

As most sports are still up in the air on when and how to make a return, it is important to prepare for the scenario that matches will return behind closed doors, or at least with limits on the number of fans attending an event. 

This is where brands can come in, by creating a way of bringing fans together and showcasing their support from afar. This could be done through mediums such as Zoom conferencing and Houseparty for more tight knit gatherings, so fans can enjoy the sporting spectacle together. Additionally, brands can use existing infrastructure such as the large screen TVs in stadiums to highlight fans online celebrations. 

Expect long-term changes
After improving the way we market to the at-home sport fan, their expectations will rise both in terms of matchday visits and their experience from home. Important technological developments such as 5G will soon offer improved AR/VR capabilities to enhance the in stadium and at home experiences. This is especially significant when thinking about the rise of esports.

Fans who pick up esports during this period may continue to follow it once sport does return, providing brands an opportunity to develop a relationship with the esports community. This goes beyond the realms of like-for-like games (e.g. basketball and NBA 2K), but also into games like Fortnite and Call of Duty which will appeal to the average gamer. 

It is an unprecedented time in sport, but consider these constraints an exciting new brief into understanding the desires of sports fans. Not just those who go to the events, but also those who regularly follow the action from home anyway.

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This article was written by our Senior Research & Insight Executive, Saad Abukhadra