It was in mid-March that Covid-19 made its presence felt on the hitherto irrepressible world of football. In the space of a few days, several managers, players and owners tested positive for the disease, leaving the writing etched firmly onto the walls. LaLiga was the first to suspend its season, followed swiftly by the Premier League, Serie A, Ligue 1 and the Bundesliga.
At that point, I remember thinking this would be a test of how central football had become to my world. Could I really miss it that much? Well, after four weeks in which I’ve watched countless official World Cup films, exhausted the Sporcle library and tuned into my first ever marble race, it’s safe to say I am missing it more than I anticipated.
Uefa’s recent directive that European leagues explore every option to finish domestic seasons, then, came as music to the ears; the strongest indication yet that football is nearing a return.
And while yesterday’s cancellation of Ligue 1, coupled with the concerns professed by Fifa’s chief medical officer, tempered expectations somewhat, the Bundesliga retains hope of recommencing in May. LaLiga, the Premier League and Serie A, meanwhile, remain committed to pursuing a restart in June.
The product will look entirely different. Matches will be played behind closed doors in an intensely supervised environment. Nevertheless, football’s re-emergence will be a significant cultural moment; a sign that we are heading toward a semblance of normality and a beacon of hope for vast swathes of soccer-starved football junkies.
Inevitably, there will be disgruntlement amongst match-going fans. Yet, considering just one per cent of Chelsea’s fanbase physically attend its home fixtures, there is palpable merit in having football back on our screens. After all, this global game is one that is principally consumed through television.
And there is a commercial rationale driving resumption, too. The impact of Covid-19 has left several elite clubs in a parlous financial situation. Were the season to be declared null and void, Burnley is one of many teams in the Premier League which fears bankruptcy would follow. Football’s return will satisfy various broadcast and sponsorship contracts, providing clubs with a vital shot in the arm as they battle a turbulent financial climate.
So, as we edge closer to football’s reappearance, what can we expect to see in a post-lockdown landscape? Here are a few thoughts on the opportunities and challenges that lie ahead for broadcasters, fans, brands and rights-holders.
Viewing figures in the short-term are likely to be higher than ever before. In the UK, 47 of the remaining 92 Premier League fixtures are set to be aired live by Sky Sports and BT Sport under existing contracts, with talks ongoing around putting the other 45 on Amazon or the BBC. With less pressure to protect match attendance, we could find ourselves in a situation where all 92 matches are broadcast in the UK.
Perhaps the more interesting question, though, is what that broadcast will look like. With games occurring in empty arenas, how will they create a viewing experience that resembles what we have grown accustomed to? Other leagues have experimented with mannequins in the stands, while talk abounds of AI-generated crowd noise being pumped into stadiums to recreate the atmosphere and aesthetic of a live fixture.
And what about the game presentation? With attention turning to online gaming in recent weeks, fans have been driven towards streaming platforms such as Twitch. On there, viewers encounter a more interactive broadcast proposition, including the ability to communicate with other fans via a chatbox. It’s a vision of what broadcast would look like were fans talked with rather than talked at. It will be interesting to see if that prompts the major players to shake up their broadcast model.
Deprived of seeing their heroes in action for some time, football’s impending restart is sure to generate a familiar sense of anticipation that we experience at the dawn of a new season. Such excitement will only be heightened by the prospect of a footballing extravaganza on TV – akin to the type we see during a major international tournament. So, despite the empty stadiums, we might see a situation where fan engagement is stronger than it had been prior to the outbreak of Covid-19.
The return to a normal match-going experience will inevitably take longer. When the turnstiles reopen, fans will likely take a cautious approach to reintegration, as they overcome anxiety around the safety of mass gatherings and try to navigate the financial repercussions of this crisis. With matchday income a major revenue stream for clubs that will be a concern, albeit a temporary one. By 2021, we should see football revert to a more typical ecosystem, with an even greater level of appreciation from fans for the sport and their teams.
The advice for brands during the Covid-19 crisis has been clear: be sensitive and show your support to those in need. Sponsors involved in football are no different. Upon resumption, expect to see brands drop the heavy sales approach and instead lead with CSR messaging. In the short-term, activations and pitchside LED perimeter boards will likely focus on appreciation for key workers, as well as highlighting the work brands are doing in conjunction with the club to support local communities.
Further down the line, we will no doubt see a move back to campaign-led messaging. Yet, given the demand for brands to play their part in the recovery effort, expect to see a greater CSR element incorporated into sponsorship strategies. In many areas, this crisis has brought about a welcome reconnection between football club and local community, with the sport proving itself to be an effective driver of social impact. Brands would do well to build on that platform.
For current sponsors, the temporary lack of live action is not all doom-and-gloom, either. The wall-to-wall broadcast coverage will see media values increase significantly for the remainder of the season, and the prospect of the first half of next season also being aired on TV, as we wait for fans to be readmitted to stadiums, could tempt new sponsors into the market for the 2020-21 season.
The grave financial ramifications of coronavirus on clubs has created a buyers’ market for sponsors. Numerous clubs need a cash injection and are yet to have a brand signed up for their front-of-shirt or sleeve sponsorship for next season. That should provide a chance for brands previously priced out of football shirt sponsorship to enter the market with some good value deals.
The struggles of the betting and gaming sector will only broaden that opportunity. Many Premier League clubs rely on betting companies for their shirt sponsorship, but several Asian betting brands have had to close their businesses in the wake of Covid-19. Smaller clubs will, therefore, need to look beyond the Asian gambling sector for future sponsors, and consider taking a reduced fee.
Does it spell the end for betting sponsorship in football, though? Probably not. Many of the more robust and well-established European betting brands know that when football comes back it’s going to be as popular as ever and they will want to be part of the conversation.
All eyes will now turn to the Bundesliga. If the logistical and ethical issues surrounding resumption can be overcome, we can all look forward to a bumper summer of football ahead.