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‘Stop broadcasting, start interacting’ | The importance of digital engagement during sport’s shutdown

  • Rights-holders attempting to fill the gap with humorous and archival content, but may need to go further to satisfy sponsors
  • Esports and streaming platforms like Twitch allow fan engagement to take place even from isolation
  • Players need to take active role in engaging with fans and providing content while fulfilling sponsor obligations 

From Formula One launching a Virtual Grand Prix series to Fifa opening its archives and Leyton Orient hosting the UltimateQuaranTeam global esports tournament for football clubs, rights-holders and teams have already begun to think creatively about how they can continue to provide content to fans starved of live sporting action. 

While almost every aspect of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen most major sporting competitions cancelled or suspended indefinitely, is unprecedented, football clubs in particular are having to rapidly adjust to the alien scenario of the football news cycle falling silent.

“Digital engagement is usually quite secure across sport and especially in football, because it’s governed by a very uniform and consistent calendar,” says Charlie Beall, consulting partner at digital agency Seven League. “You have a match every few days, so you’re doing preview, then match coverage, then analysis. The schedule looks after itself in a lot of ways. There’s never really a time when there’s not something for them to be posting about and keeping fans engaged with.” 

When a team does put out a piece of creative content, it is usually part of a long-term planned activation, often with support from a brand and an agency. Now, clubs are being forced into activating creatively at short notice, and with relevant parties isolating in different locations often making co-ordinated effort challenging. 

Complicating that further is the fact that club sponsors, who have paid huge fees for the rights to assets that are now inaccessible or invisible, are going to be attempting to get some of the value of their deals through digital content, increasing demand for both quantity and quality of social media output. 

Boom in archival content

“It’s a period of reckoning right now, about how do you keep those commercial brands happy, and how do you keep fans engaged,” says Beall. “Without the structure of the calendar, there are only a certain number of levers there for you to think about in terms of creative executive and engagement. And those levers are the same ones you’ll also need to use to fulfil your commercial obligations.”

At this early stage, content has focused on simply replacing the void left behind by sport. Videos of marble racing and bowls, overlaid with crowd noise, have gone viral over the past week, while last weekend English football team Hull City and German side Bayer Leverkusen played out a game of Connect Four over Twitter.

“So at the moment it’s just been about, ‘what kind of fun can we have, how can we replace that thing that sports gives our audience?’,” says Niall Coen, chief executive of Snack Media, sports digital publishers and fan engagement experts. “It plays to that community role sport plays, just bringing people together and providing a focal point. But that won’t last long, at some point it is going to have to move into providing content that both engages fans more deeply, and is able to offer something sponsors can latch on to.”  

Archival content has provided one such avenue. Fifa is allowing fans to access over 30 full matches from World Cups past, the French Football League has opened its archives to broadcasters, and individual clubs have been churning out highlights compilations – usually reserved for notable anniversaries or the downtime of an international weekend – at an ever-faster rate.

Elliott Richardson, founder and president of the club-owned digital publishing company Dugout, which specialises in the production of archival content, says he expects an extra 70 million video views via the platform in March than February, largely as a result of the shutdown. 

“We’re seeing massively increased demand,” he tells SportBusiness. “If publishers were taking 10 videos a day before, they’re now taking 20 to 30. We’re seeing newspapers and other online outlets taking far more content to make up for the shortfall they’re seeing elsewhere. Because of the relationship we have with the clubs, we are able to meet that demand.” 

Stop broadcasting, start interacting

Beall feels that while nostalgia content can help maintain engagement in the short-term, it is unlikely to hold fans’ interest over a period of weeks and months, while its commercial potential is also limited. “The problem is that everyone is doing it,” he says. “Every single sports network is relying on re-runs, every social media account is posting throwbacks, so how engaging is that going to be? You’ve got a population hungry for sports content but, with no live matches available, you’re competing more than ever with Netflix and with video games. I think the success stories during this period are going to come down to creative execution around the use of the assets that people do still have access to.”

Where the real value could lie, Beall suggests, is in utilising this time to forge closer connections with audiences, turning to emerging platforms such as Twitch to facilitate direct communication between players and fans. “It’s a time to stop broadcasting and start interacting,” he says. “Teams and rights-holders who go that extra mile to foster a community, keep people’s spirits up – people will be grateful for that in the long-run.”

Twitch has traditionally been associated with esports and video games, but its hook – allowing direct, real-time interaction between broadcasters and audiences – has begun to be adopted for sports already, with the NFL using it to provide alternate Thursday Night Football coverage, and is something that is easily translatable across media. 

“So instead of just rewatching an old match on ESPN Gold, you could stream a classic game and have a player who played in it providing commentary, talking about big moments, answering questions that the fans are asking directly in the live chat section,” Beall says. Streams can be packaged with pre- and mid-roll advertising, but there is nothing to prevent content creators “branding their videos, giving shout-outs to sponsors, having a studio set-up where you can see partners’ logos.”

He adds: “It’s never going to replace the assets sponsors purchased as part of a match day, but if you can imagine giving fans the chance to directly interact with a star player, I think there’s potentially a lot of value in that for brands. You also have to consider the fact that if you’re doing live programming on Twitch or YouTube, the sweet spot is an hour and a half, two hours. That’s a lot more exposure for a brand than a 30-second social media clip, you can build far longer engagement times for a brand.”

Coen cautions, on that front, that there is a balance to be struck between fulfilling sponsor obligations and keeping fans engaged and entertained. “Fans know when they’re being marketed to and they know when something is organic,” he says. “If something is obviously just being done to help give a sponsor some of their value back at this time, that’s not going to be engaging content and could backfire. It’s important to make sure you’re creating content fans want to engage with first and foremost, and then you can think about how it fits into your sponsor’s strategy.” 

Rupert Pratt, director of sales marketing at Snack Media, agrees that active player involvement is going to form a central part of how clubs can be creative. “I’m not seeing a huge amount from the players at the moment, apart from a few isolated examples,” he says. “If I was a club right now, I’d be looking across the inventory that I can still use, and I’d be looking at what access I can get to the players and start thinking about creating more creative content with them remotely. It doesn’t even have to be explicitly football-related; in fact, I’d say that the best examples might well not be.”

Juventus forward Paulo Dybala set an early example to follow in this regard, taking to Instagram to post an review of his fitness regime while in isolation and, more interestingly, a video of himself making empanadas, a traditional food in his native Argentina. Again, this was an ad-hoc, personal use of social from the player, but Pratt says it points towards a potential area of opportunity for clubs to use their available assets in a way that might work for sponsors. 

“I use the word ‘opportunity’ in the loosest sense of the word, but what’s going on does create an opportunity to try and do things differently, which is what everybody’s thinking about right now,” he says. “You might have restricted access to players, but suddenly these guys have got time on their hands – how can clubs and sponsors try to make the most of that? They’re still contracted assets and they’re contracted assets that even the club normally has very limited access to.

“The benefit of social media is its viral nature. Small but creative ideas like the ice bucket challenge or the dab can quickly become global after starting off with one person. I can see a situation where something goes from player to player or club to club, generating that engagement across platforms and between rights-holders, because time is a great thing for creativity.” 

Time for reflection

This period also offers an opportunity to take stock and reflect on the kinds of non-match day-related content that have worked well in the past and for clubs to work out how they can reappropriate those ideas for the coming weeks. 

“We’re doing a lot of auditing at the moment, working with clubs to see where their engagement has spiked in the past and how we can try to recreate that now,” says Beall. “The analogy we usually use for digital is ‘fixing an aeroplane in mid-air,’ because you’re trying to react to things immediately as they happen, there’s not a lot of downtime in which to reflect. Now that aeroplane is grounded, but we can still use this time to make sure it’s in the best condition possible when it takes off again.”

Beall also suggests that clubs should not treat this period as wholly unique, and should try to avoid sinking resources into anything that doesn’t fit into part of an existing long-term strategy. “I would caution against bandwagon-jumping and encourage people to think about whether a platform helps them reach a community that is already part of their planning,” he says. 

“If you start investing into a platform like Twitch and then drop it after two months when things go back to normal, it’s a bit of a wasted opportunity. If you can use this opportunity to build new audiences and engage with your audiences a bit differently, and then keep that going, you’re going to be even stronger for it.” 

The question of how sport should broach the subject and what part it has to play in the ongoing crisis has been much-debated. Coen says that while rights-holders and players alike should consult with their PR teams and agency partners to avoid any “major gaffes”, they also shouldn’t worry too much about adopting a reverential tone. 

“I think everyone understands the seriousness of what’s going on,” he says. “Of course they will be sympathetic and respectful, but this is a rapidly evolving situation in which people will be very grateful for people that try and entertain and provide them with a break. That, after all, is what sport is for.” 

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