It was October 10, 2001, only weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11. I had managed to secure tickets to the first game of the American League Division Series between the New York Yankees and the Oakland Athletics in the Bronx. On that chilly autumn evening, there was a palpable sense of energy as people filled the stadium and settled into their seats. They were anxious, excited and eager to reclaim the familiar feelings of playoff baseball. America was desperate for a return to normalcy.
There was a moment of silence to remember the fallen, it muted the city and the nation watching on television.
When the first ball was thrown, there was a deafening roar from the crowd and it felt like a weight of sadness and anger had come off the country’s shoulders. The MLB playoffs were back and, in that unifying moment, sport healed and provided hope and a much-needed escape from what we had endured.
As parts of the world ease their way out of the Covid-19 pandemic, I expect this same electrical spirit of unity in stadiums from Vietnam to New Zealand, Japan to Australia, and beyond, as fans rally behind their teams after months in lockdown.
With sponsorship sales down, live attendances mostly cancelled, and sports-related media revenue generation expected to drop by some 35 per cent in APAC to the tune of $2bn (€2bn), we could be forgiven for buying into a “doom and gloom” narrative about a sports industry that will never be the same again.
A snap poll by UK newspaper The Guardian indicated that fans will be less passionate when they return to sport. Others have indicated that brands will or should take a more austere approach to spending, marketing and sponsorships. Some say there will be a “new normal”, that is more digital than physical, and that there will be long-term anxiety among fans about attending live events and being among crowds.
There is validity in these observations. But they also overlook the power of sport to conjure the human spirit on and off the playing field.
As countries transition to a post-lockdown world, we should not resign ourselves to a gloomy “new normal” in sport, we should commit ourselves to creating a “better normal”. This means better broadcasts, better live event planning, better opportunities for partnerships, better experiences for fans, better all-round entertainment and engagement, and a greater focus by governments to use sporting events to rally their citizens.
It is not going to be an easy road in the short-to-medium-term as the pandemic pans out. But I do not expect the sports industry will remain where it is now. Sports will come back better and stronger than ever as governments, leagues, broadcasters, players, rights owners, sponsors and marketing agencies put fans at the front and centre to welcome back a better normal.
Sport is a formidable force, and we can count on it to unite societies all over the world again.
Here are five aspects that I think will be important in the months and years ahead:
1. Digitalisation and breaking the fourth wall
Technology and next generation storytelling are going to be crucial. The global lockdown has sped up many changes we already expected from live sports and broadcasters. Players from the NBA to the EPL have staged online competitions among themselves and with fans to keep them engaged during lockdowns. Lebron James and Neymar asked fans to join them from home in online challenges. The International Table Tennis Federation called on fans of the sport to submit videos of themselves that were stitched together to create the world’s longest rally. Juventus reached out to fans in China and grew its fanbase there exponentially.
This activity has set a new bar and fans will be expecting more of this direct-to-consumer communication and breaking of the fourth wall.
If leagues and players can continue this engagement, it will create interesting opportunities for brands and sponsors to be part of what are organic conversations with fans.
2. Esports – the boom amid the gloom
One sector which is growing exponentially despite the pandemic is esports, which saw significant pick-up in user engagement during the lockdown. Revenues for gaming companies, console makers and streaming platforms hit new highs almost overnight.
The shutdown of traditional sports turbocharged the esports and gaming industry, and sparked interest from non-gamers and non-endemic sponsors. Korean esports team T1, which is represented by Sportfive, penned deals with BMW, Samsung, Nike and Logitech all within three months this year at the height of the pandemic.
I expect more brands to pay attention to the tremendous potential of esports to help them engage directly with younger, more digitally-connected fans.
3. Going live and loud
People are itching to go out and live their lives again, and I expect live sports and entertainment to return even bigger than it was, not just in terms of attendance but in overall interest, engagement and production quality. Organisers, stadiums, venues, teams and sponsors will rethink the way they deliver live shows and sports events, and how they can extend their marketing pre-, mid- and post-show via more quality content and while adapting to more innovative platforms.
In early June, for example, football in Vietnam returned to packed crowds as the Covid-19 threat in the country abated. In one of the three opening V.League 1 games, the 40,000-seater stadium in Nam Dinh had nearly 30,000 fans, an unprecedented crowd at a stadium that averaged 12,000 spectators a game in previous seasons.
With growing confidence in the return of live events, stadiums should start equipping their infrastructure to deliver enhanced fan experiences. For example, there are interesting opportunities for event owners to implement augmented and virtual reality experiences on-ground, with concurrent live streams on social channels to reach larger audiences.
4. Big hopes for China
In China, where lockdowns have been largely lifted, Sportfive and its clients have been back in their offices for some time already, looking at the opportunities ahead in the sports industry. We project the sports and sponsorship scene in China to have big run over the next three years, with brands looking to move forward with activities around the Uefa Euro and Summer Olympics in 2021; the Asian Games, Qatar World Cup and Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022; and the AFC Asian Cup in 2023.
China will continue to be a growth market for international rights owners, and their need to navigate the complex landscape and create fanbases there should mean continued growth in digital consulting and activation work for agencies.
5. Governments to embrace the sporting spirit
As governments try to kickstart their economies and pick up the pieces, sports and live events will be a rallying cry for them.
We see potential for great synergies between governments, sporting authorities, leagues, rights owners, venue operators, and event companies to put on fantastic sport and entertainment events if they can create symbiotic relationships focused on driving national spirit and keeping citizens engaged.
Sports events can be a perfect marketing play to get countries back under a positive spotlight, and play into themes including tourism, investment and nation-building.