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James Dobbs | Thinking creatively during a pandemic

James Dobbs, managing director of SNTV, a joint venture between IMG and the Associated Press, looks at the different ways organisations need to adapt to users' needs when producing content during the Covid-19 pandemic

James Dobbs

The impact of the Covid-19 crisis has forced everybody in the sports sector to think in new ways about how they work and our service is not immune to the headwinds the industry faces.

However, while live events are paused, the news around sport continues and the appetite for coverage has never been greater. With more than 1,200 customers relying on our service we have had no choice but to think creatively, not only about what content we can produce but also the ways we are going to produce it.

Working from home

Like many businesses, SNTV had to close our offices and make the transition to remote working, therefore our initial challenge was not commercial but operational. Migrating a 24-hour news service from a centralised workflow based around our newsrooms, to producers working from home, while continuing to deliver a live service demanded a complete rethink of our set up.

We stress-tested a range of technology solutions, prioritising any potential platform’s ability to ensure a robust production capability, enabling our international news desks to interact and all with minimal latency. Once a preferred solution was identified we migrated our entire production capabilities to a cloud-based system over a single weekend; a testament to the phenomenal effort and several sleepless nights from our technology colleagues.

Despite the challenges involved, the forced embrace of remote working has provided unexpected learnings, a key one being the flexibility offered by our newly-connected newsrooms worldwide. Having content wired out of Japan, into our Singapore newsroom and edited remotely from London is the new norm and provides us the ability to focus our resources wherever in the world there is demand, which is especially important when covering major events in regional locations.

Content

Once operational remotely, our next challenge was content. With little live event coverage and many broadcasters’ camera crews unable to travel due to border controls, the ability for us to continue providing our customers with breaking and compelling news was paramount.

Major sport and live coverage usually steal the limelight, so a small positive of the ongoing hiatus was the ability to cover stories that would usually remain untold. Whether it be gymnasts training in their bedrooms or athletes discussing the impact of preparing their whole life for an Olympics only for it to be taken away, the human side of sport has taken centre stage and broadcasters and audiences are hooked.

Esports is another area that has seen its profile increase and raises the question; is this their breakthrough moment? Recent virtual events have certainly demanded higher billing in the absence of more mainstream sports and our customers have been keen to engage and experiment with this content. Of course, gaming based on traditional sports i.e. football, delivers the greatest engagement and whether there remains a demand for esports once the regular calendar returns remains to be seen, but there is undoubted demand amongst the increasingly influential Gen-Z and the brands that target them.

Supporting sport – federations and brands

From the very outset of the Covid-19 situation, we made the decision that, wherever possible, we would support our partners throughout the industry. A healthy and competitive landscape benefits everyone, including ourselves, so this was not a wholly altruistic decision; but we have many long-standing partners and friends throughout the sports world and faced with this unprecedented challenge it seemed right to assist wherever we could.

The primary concern voiced by our Federation partners is the ability to engage with audiences during the lockdown. Taking this on board we now work regularly with Federations in a consultancy capacity, helping them identify stories around their sport that will generate interest with audiences. We then produce and distribute these stories across our network, providing exposure for the sport whilst ensuring consumers receive a unique story that might otherwise never have been told.

We are increasingly providing a similar service for brands and sponsors who have seen their exposure and engagement curtailed during the lockdown. Brands offer a challenge to SNTV as our editorial integrity is essential and as such, we must resist any temptation to distribute or endorse marketing material. However, corporate sponsors are now a fully-integrated member of the sporting family and the wealth of editorial content opportunities through their access to athletes and ambassadors cannot be dismissed. By operating a strict ‘church and state’ policy, clearly detailing any brand involvement in stories, we can create exclusive content around sports, athletes and teams and amplify them across our worldwide network.

We have no way of knowing when or how the world will begin the return to normality or what the sports industry will look like when we get there. I feel confident that many of the changes imposed on us by the pandemic, remote but connected working, creative partnerships, innovative content and new ways in which to share it, will all become standard practice going forward.

Whilst sport can sometimes seem a fickle subject during challenging times, listening to customers, colleagues and speaking as a fan, there is no doubt its power to provide joy, relief and escapism to so many is needed now more than ever.

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