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How the Covid lockdown is redrawing international federations’ content strategies

US Olympic hurdler Aries Merritt trains in isolation (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

  • Postponement of 2020 Olympics and other events leaves major hole in calendar for international federations 
  • Maintaining engagement with fans a challenge with no live events and no summer showpiece
  • Early wave of ‘rewind’ content has given way to user and athlete-generated material

When it eventually came, the decision taken by the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee to push the Olympics back by a year could have surprised no one. By early March of this year, the unprecedented step of postponing the Games due to the global Covid-19 pandemic already seemed inevitable. At the end of the month, the inevitable came. The Olympics had been cancelled before, but only in wartime, and never before postponed.

While many organisations within the Olympic movement, including international federations, are counting the financial and commercial costs of the delay – the IOC is offering a relief package worth up to $150m (€139m) to its members and associates – the ramifications run deep and will have an knock-on impact on every element of operations, with plans and strategies that were laid out over the four-year Olympic cycle now – at best – severely disrupted.

“Everything is really structured around that,” Nicole Jeffery, head of communications at World Athletics, tells SportBusiness. “You’re building your content cycles and engagement opportunities across all your channels so that hopefully it peaks with the Olympic Games every four years. Obviously there are high-profile events happening all the time, but that’s your main window of opportunity, both in terms of engaging existing fans but especially for reaching new ones.”

World Athletics was among the first federations to be forced to move a major event by the Coronavirus outbreak, with its World Indoor Championships having been set to take place in Nanjing, China in March. What has followed has seen not only the Olympic Games delayed, but subsequently next year’s World Athletics Championships as well, which will now happen in 2022.

“Very early on we realised we would need to redraw our plans for this year and beyond, in terms of the messaging we were putting out to fans,” says Jeffery. Initially, before the full extent of the disruption that Covid-19 would go on to cause was clear, Word Athletics began turning to its archive, releasing material from last year’s World Championships in Doha. 

World Athletics has created a range of content during lockdown, including some directed at younger fans and children. (World Athletics)

“We were lucky that it was always in the plan to do that, those rights were always going to revert to us this year for us to use socially, but we moved it forward a bit to keep us ticking over as lockdown was beginning,” says Jeffery. Several of the videos posted from last year’s World Championships have already surpassed 275k views – close to what the most popular videos from the 2017 event in London have reached in three years. 

Then, in late March, when it became clear that a significant part of the global calendar for the year was going to be affected, Jeffery says World Athletics realised the need for a longer-term strategy around its content output for the year. “In terms of our digital approach, we basically had to throw out the formula, throw out all the planning we’d done based around the Olympic year and start again with a clean sheet of paper,” she says. “So much of what we had planned was based around events, and now we needed to find a way to keep fans engaged and interested without any live sporting content.”

Lockdown as a learning opportunity

Out of this need, Athletics@Home was born, a hub for a much wider range of content than World Athletics had previously been used to producing. The hub was divided into four streams – rewind, kids, active and unwind – intended to fulfil different requirements fans may have throughout the lockdown period. “We were already producing different types of content,” Jeffery says, “but we’d never really labelled them differently or targeted different demographics with them. It was just one stream of whatever we were producing.” 

In that sense, the lockdown has proven to be a valuable learning experience for World Athletics. While engaging entirely new audiences without live events is difficult, Jeffery says that the responses to some of the content on Athletics@Home has shown the federation that it was not doing enough to reach the different kinds of followers it had. The ‘active’ stream has focused on producing the kind of instructional fitness videos that have proven widely popular during lockdown, with elite athletes running viewers through their home training routines. 

“We’ve realised that while we serve our elite fanbase really well, we really want to do more to provide content to the global community of runners and recreational athletes so that, whether they follow the elite end of the sport or not, they feel that there’s something for them from us,” she says. “We’d love to have a stronger link between those two sides of our sport, and that’s something the lockdown has allowed us to improve. A side-effect of this is that we’ve been able to divert resources towards the participation part of our sport.”

Similarly, in lieu of live competition, World Athletics launched the Ultimate Garden Clash, with athletes competing at the pole vault from the safety of their own homes. “The positive thing about lots of track and field events for us us that they are individual sports and can be done from anywhere,” says Jeffery. “I think one thing that we’ll take forward is that elite athletes are still elite athletes wherever they are, and there will always be an audience who wants to watch them compete.”

Fernando Lima, secretary general at the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB), agrees that there are valuable lessons to be learned from this period, but also believes that his federation’s existing blueprint is one that has served it well throughout the lockdown. Over the past two years, the FIVB has invested heavily in its digital strategy, posting hugely impressive numbers – according to a report from global communications agency Burson Cohn & Wolfe, the FIVB attracted the highest proportional growth of any international federation on social media in 2019.

“In reviewing our strategy and trying to think about how we can attract more followers to our channels, we landed upon a very important concept,” says Lima. “That is that the flow of communication in our sport is now a permanent flow.” Lima says that prior to 2019, the FIVB’s fan-facing content output was based entirely around events, with live updates and reactions, because of a natural assumption about when fan’s interests would be higher. 

“We understand the need to prepare the fans for the events. We understand the importance of the live event itself. But our fans were not being properly fed with the content they deserve. We now implement a concept that the real journey of communication to the fans starts when the event is over – that we need to serve them throughout the weeks and months with more content, and this is something that has definitely held us in good stead when we have not been able to stage any events at all.”

Where the FIVB has differed from World Athletics is on a greater reliance on user-generated content. Where volleyball clearly lacks the individual aspect of many track and field events, Lima notes that “we are fortunate that the skills of volleyball are everywhere. If you’re bouncing a balloon between two people, that’s using the skills of volleyball”.

Motasem El Bawab, head of digital at the FIVB, adds: “We had adopted this strategy of more consistent, engaging content for a while, but even with that we still relied a lot on what was generated around events. The strategy for us in lockdown is that we really want to get the fans fully engaged, and we thought, what better way of doing that than having them create the content themselves?” 

Creative examples of user-generated content that have proven popular during the pandemic have been videos of people playing a socially-distanced variant of volleyball across a street from their balconies, and even two people playing while waterskiing. 

“We’ve mixed that up with some stuff from our athletes, asking them to get involved in interviews and submit videos of their own,” says El Bawab. “The most popular came from one of our Norwegian beach volleyball players, Mathias Berntsen, but it wasn’t him who was the star, it was his dog Kiara.”

Berntsen’s video, which features Kiara showing off her volleyball skills, has been one of the real breakout viral videos of the lockdown, reaching over two million views on the FIVB’s official channels in just a few days, El Bawab says. 

“It’s fun, but it’s also something we are deliberately trying to do more of,” he adds. “Especially now, but in the future we think this will continue to be a successful kind of content for us. It’s something that has helped us reach new audiences, it’s the kind of thing that people can connect with and helps people see that volleyball is more than just elite competition, it’s something that can be a part of every day life.” 

With the situation for the rest of the year remaining uncertain, both El Bawab and Jeffrey say that plans for the month-long period when the Olympics and Paralympics should have been taking place are fluid. World Athletics is hopeful of having “some kind of late athletics season at the end of the summer”, says Jeffery, and is looking to the Impossible Games – announced by the event organisers of the Bislett Games, the Norwegian leg of track and field’s Diamond League – as a bellwether of how that might work. “They’re shortening the event, it will be an hour long rather than two, two-and-a-half, but they’ve picked the ones that can be done while respecting social distancing laws and hopefully work as kind of a broadcasting package,” Jeffery says.

The pandemic, she suggests, may even lead to “some new competition styles we haven’t seen before” as event organisers and broadcasters come together to find formats that can continue to work in a reduced, more accessible format until events can be returned to a full complement of competitions. “There’s a lot of creative people out there in sport,” she says, “and certainly in athletics. Whenever we emerge from this, there will be lessons and learnings we’ll take with us into the future.”

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