March 9, 2020 was the date of the last Premier League game to be played in front of a capacity crowd before Covid-19 lockdowns struck the country. On that day, 32,125 people saw Leicester City beat Aston Villa 4-0 at the King Power Stadium.
Since then, it goes without saying that live sport has undergone a dramatic change.
Recently, the Publicis Sport & Entertainment team has been thinking about the impact of Covid-19 on being a sports fan, and how we have been following our beloved teams and favourite stars.
Our agency comprises season-ticket holders, regular attendees, not-as-often-as-we’d-like-to match-goers and those happy to listen to on the radio or watch on TV at the pub.
There’s interest in many levels of the football pyramid, fans of Premiership Rugby teams (and Saracens) and a few of us desperately hoping for just one more victory for Andy Murray, to name but a few examples.
We asked ourselves a series of questions, beginning with one big question: does anyone feel they’re “losing touch” with their team? Or is it in fact the opposite?
Inevitably, we discussed the amount we have watched our teams (or not), and how we have followed them, but conversation also turned very much to what we miss about attending matches.
Same, but different
“I think I’ve seen every Wasps fixture and about the same of the Chairboys [Wycombe Wanderers] as I usually would. Just not in person.”
While I, personally, struggle to understand the reasons for watching every Wycombe Wanderers match, it quickly became clear to many of us that the amount that we’re watching our teams, whether rugby or football, top tier or not, hasn’t dropped at all. If anything, it’s increased.
“The fact that there is so much Premier League football on TV helps me feel connected. I remember when Leicester were on TV only four or five times a season. Now it’s every game.”
For those of us who are Premier League team fans, there has been a clear difference, and one of the few positive impacts of lockdown, with every game being broadcast live on TV. Admittedly, not everyone has access to Sky Sports and BT Sport and Amazon Prime Video, but for those of us used to following our teams via live TV coverage, the increase has been notable. Particularly for those fans of teams who aren’t shown as often as some.
Missing the atmosphere
“I love being able to watch every Chelsea game but definitely miss the atmosphere even on TV.”
However, the amount we’re watching our teams doesn’t tell the whole story; far from it. Even when watching the matches on television, we still miss the atmosphere of a full stadium. We’ll never be able to assess the full impact of games being played behind closed doors, but all of us feel it in some way.
“I’d say 30 per cent less exciting without.”
I’m sure we all have a different sense of quite how big the impact is, and it would differ from game to game, but the fact that empty stadiums can affect television viewing pleasure so perceptibly is an issue that broadcasters can’t get away from, even with the introduction of fake crowd noise.
“Fake crowd noise has got a lot better over recent months, but it can’t replicate the atmosphere of specific songs being sung by a crowd. A crowd reacting to a particular player, or suggesting the ref might not be the best there’s ever been.”
I very much had my doubts when fake crowd noise was first introduced. In fact, I was one of those who purposefully chose to watch matches without it – “I quite like the novelty of being able to hear the players better” – I told myself. But credit where it’s due, it’s certainly improved. That said, it’s clearly not a satisfactory substitute for many. Are broadcasters able or willing to develop the technology further? It could prove to be a great opportunity for the clubs and broadcasters to engage with fans, but will it be deemed worthwhile?
“There’s something about going to matches, especially the big ones, which is so much more than watching the game itself. There’s more anticipation.”
“It’s the pint before the match.”
“It’s the excitement on the way to the ground, the feeling you get as you hear singing around you.”
Even if broadcasters can replicate the atmosphere expected within a stadium, it’s clear that the atmosphere of a football match and its attendance is about much more than what happens within the stadium. Whether it’s pre-match drink routines, the journey to the stadium or the emotions you feel as you first see the stadium, there’s a lot that we are missing. How much are we missing it? Well …
“I would happily sit in sub-zero temperatures, to watch live football right now”
I think this sentiment sums it up pretty well. Those midweek night matches in January and February can get pretty cold, but even that numbness in your toes that you just can’t shake all match isn’t enough to put us off doing what we love so much, and miss so dearly. Do we miss those “cold, wet nights in Stoke”? Yes, yes, we do. And what else do we miss, that maybe we never thought we would?
“The thought of jumping up and down with the random stranger next to you, seems bonkers right now, but I miss it so much!”
If ever there was a phrase which summed up what it is that we miss about live sport, then this is it; not the interaction with a stranger part, but what it represents; pure, unchecked emotion. It is easy during these times to question the value and role of sport in this seemingly crazy world, but nothing has come close to replicating the emotions and reactions we go through as we support our teams; the joy and the pain, the ecstasy and agony. We know this all too well, and we’re hopeful it will return again soon. And you can be sure, that we’ll be there for it, and hopefully never take it for granted again …
“I think that will go back to normal as soon as stadiums are full again. Any thought of keeping your distance from ‘strangers’ after your team scores a last-minute winner will go straight out of the window”
In the meantime, us sports fans are finding ways to maintain our engagement as best we can, with digital channels playing an ever-increasing role.
“Instagram has been good too with players talking to fans more than previously. That definitely helps you feel connected.”
“The turbocharging of official and unofficial club digital/social activity we’re experiencing, has possibly enhanced the relationship between clubs and fans.”
Whether from rights-holders, or talent, brands or fellow fans, social media has certainly helped. And with it, new propositions and fan behaviours have emerged; I never would have imagined I’d have found myself watching the Pole Vault Ultimate Garden Clash, but watch it I did. These changes represent new opportunities for fans to be engaged with.
As we find our way back to watching live sport, brands will be faced with the challenge that connecting to the live audience is where the emotion is, and they’ll be rightly looking at those connections. But the options available through remote viewing and virtual engagement have matured enormously in the last 12 months. In many senses, brands using sports platforms have never had such ripe opportunity at their fingertips, and can be part of a renewed excitement and passion when live sport truly returns.