Tim Smith | Sport after Covid-19: Planning for re-emergence

Tim Smith, founder and lead consultant at impact and legacy consultancy EventID, lays out six themes and tactics he recommends in order to re-emerge strongly after the global shutdown caused by the Covid-19 pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has caused a level of disruption to world sport never seen in peacetime. Meanwhile, the global economy is expected to enter the deepest recession since the 1930s.

There is no question that we are going to see substantial changes to our coveted sports industry, and the after-effects are going to stretch out for a number of years.

Regardless of whether  your business model incorporates participants, fans, hosts, sponsors or broadcasters, nobody is spared the risk of further fall-out once society and the economy starts moving again.

So after six weeks of largely reactive behaviour, sports properties and executives will now be looking at how they re-emerge in the best possible condition . Here are six key re-emergence themes and planning tactics that should feature in any response.

Key themes for re-emergence

Sport’s role in wider society

Sport has been challenged throughout the lockdown period by media, politicians and the general public about how it can use its resources and profile to help the public health cause.

Many have stepped up to the plate but public mood will dictate that big businesses and high-profile sport should continue do more.

As their activities re-emerge, sports organisations will need to think about how they can contribute to key societal issues, health and welfare. Areas to influence may include:

  • Promoting health messages, physical activity and mental well-being
  • Reducing inequality
  • Advocating fairness

Changing business models

With its widespread impact, the crisis is going to represent a habit-maker and habit-breaker for personal and corporate behaviour. Moreover, when sport resumes it will most likely do so behind closed doors, starving organisers of a core revenue stream.

For many, the business model for sport will need to change in order to retain sustainability or to keep losses manageable.

Organisations can take steps toward the new reality by adopting an innovation mindset.

Ideas can be incubated and tested in whatever environments are available, and successful new innovations may become longer-term opportunities for change within that sport.

Time for creativity

High levels of innovation and creativity will be pivotal in addressing re-emergence and other challenges thrown up by the pandemic.

The challenge of maintaining fan engagement has already generated fantastic creativity in the esports and social media space. Well-cited examples include Formula 1’s Virtual Grand Prix series and events held on cycling’s Zwift platform.

Competitive content with remote, social distancing competitors is also starting to emerge, such as darts’ PDC Home Tour.

Sports organisations will be thinking about the challenges most important to them, and what creative options can be explored to overcome these.

Key planning tactics for re-emergence

Reconnect with purpose

Returning to core purpose is a clear option for sports organisations. That is re-asking yourself: ‘For what reason does our organisation exist?’

The answer to this question can be used to re-frame re-emergence activities, focusing the human and financial resources available.

Challenging decisions may need to be made around existing activities. These can be audited by examining variables such as cost, outcomes, return on investment and purpose alignment.

Organisations may be able to still work towards longer-term strategies, but shouldn’t be afraid to decelerate or put commitments on temporary hold.

Double-down on budgeting and reduce risk

There is no sidestepping the reality that sports organisation revenues have already taken, and will continue to take, a significant hit through the coronavirus pandemic and into the medium-term.

Tight budgeting, reducing outgoings and introducing high levels of control for new spend are some ways that organisations can prepare themselves for the prolonged loss in revenue.

Meanwhile, retaining a lower level of spend at the present moment may save or even make money in the longer-term (e.g. business management services, technology and innovation investment).

Any re-emergence activities should also include comprehensive risk analysis and steps to manage ongoing risk.

Build balance between adaptability and control

There will be many hurdles for sports organisations to overcome as the world re-emerges from the pandemic including new spikes in cases, health absences, regulation (eg. continued social distancing) and travel restrictions.

Key techniques to employ during this uncertainty will be:

  • Multiple scenario planning
  • Tight feedback loops and live performance data
  • Continual appraisal of status and risk

Methods such as these will help quick and informed decision-making, providing the ability for sports organisations to pivot swiftly between different approaches.

Conclusion – It’s time to plan for re-emergence

Sport is going to be integral for society’s re-emergence from the Covid-19 crisis, but sports organisations must also be considerate of changes to people’s social and economic circumstances to ensure that they re-emerge in the strongest way possible.

Whilst the challenge to restart sport will be considerable, thought and planning time should also be dedicated to how sport responds in the medium-term once initial pent-up demand is met.

EventID is an impact and legacy consultancy for sport and major events. 

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