What does the post Covid-19 sporting arena look like?
After the climax of England’s first Test match against Sri Lanka at Galle in January 2021, cricket viewers were treated to an unusual sight. England captain Joe Root could be seen talking on his mobile phone to a solitary supporter – Rob Lewis, who had travelled to Sri Lanka from England 10 months previously, before the Covid-19 pandemic struck – to thank him personally for his support.
As touching as this scene may have been, it puts into stark relief the situation that global sport has had to face over the past 12 months. A cricket stadium with a capacity of 35,000 was so empty that players were able to identify the few individuals who had somehow found a way to watch the game live. When you think of the loss in revenue that has been incurred as a direct result of Covid-19, it’s clear to see that the impact on the sports industry has been especially devastating. It’s not just the loss in ticket sales, of course: the ripple effect of peripheral sales that surround a major live sporting event has also been stopped dead in its tracks. No replica shirts or merchandise sales; no food, drink or hospitality receipts; no travel packages; no boost to the local economy… the list goes on.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg. International sport has, by and large, found ingenious ways to ensure that matches continue to be played, with teams maintaining Covid-secure bubbles. In so doing, they have protected their all-important TV rights, guaranteeing a regular source of income.
You can’t sponsor non-events
But the wider picture has been far bleaker. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were originally rescheduled for 2021, and now look to be cancelled or delayed even further (with cancelled advertising spend for NBC alone already topping $1.2billion). In football, the UEFA Euro 2020 tournament – intended to be held in 12 host cities across Europe – was initially delayed by 12 months. It is likely to be more, with reduced venues involved. The delay of the top five European football league seasons, meanwhile, is estimated to have cost €4.1billion in lost income. Countless other sports, from golf to rugby, saw cancellations, suspensions and postponements, too.
The impact for teams and clubs at a local level, meanwhile, has been catastrophic. Many have taken to asking their members and supporters to honour or renew their season tickets in good faith, with no guarantee of when live sport will return. Their plea is simple: pay us now, or we may not survive until the next season.
As Deloitte reports, the trickle-down effect of this will impact the sports ecosystem, with health and educational initiatives also suffering – not to mention the broadcasters and sponsors themselves, for whom investment in sport isn’t merely some altruistic gesture, but rather a key aspect of their business plan. Group MP estimate that the overall global cost of the pandemic to the sports industry (encompassing sponsorship deals, advertising and investment in sports-related programming) will amount to $64billion.
This is the background to some longer-term behavioural changes. Will fans return in the same numbers as they emerge from lockdown? What do Covid-safe stadiums look like? Undoubtedly, they will seek to embrace cashless payment systems – perhaps adopting the wristband-based solutions that have already been adopted by music festivals, with the added incentive of member discounts and pre-paid credit.
Multichannel is also going to become more important, with less fans committing to the live, in-person experience and more opting for digital solutions. As a consequence, streaming, premium mobile experiences, the ability to exploit established online fan communities, introduce loyalty schemes and ‘check-in’ technology will all result in a data-rich arena for stakeholders.
Ultra personalisation: The man on the fort as the future of sport?
After the initial two stages of ‘Immediate Reaction’ and ‘Short-Term Adaptation’, Group MP predicts a long-term ‘New Normal’. What does this mean beyond the jargon? Let’s reconsider that opening conversation between Joe Root and ‘superfan’ Rob Lewis. They may not have realised it at the time, but they were pointing to the future of sport’s relationship with its fans. Think about it: ultra personalisation led by data insights; loyalty schemes with inbuilt bonus structures; brand sponsorship based on individual preference. It’s all ready to go – Covid-19 just accelerated its implementation.