How the sports industry is approaching post-pandemic fan engagement

What does sports fandom look like in the new normal?

man wearing face mask in sports stadium
Credit: Shutterstock
  • With the masses huddled at home and glued to our screens, the last several months of frozen competition provided an opportunity for sports franchises to experiment with creative modes of fan engagement, often involving multiple media channels.
  • On another level, this is a challenge that wasn't prompted by COVID-19 and won't go away when COVID-19 does.
  • Franchise marketers are accelerating their digital transformation processes, finding innovative ways to connect with fans online, with VR, community building and repackaging classic content.

Due to well-founded fears that COVID-19 would run rampant in locker rooms and stadiums, basically all major league sports completely shut down on-field operations across the world for a few months in early 2020.

With the masses huddled at home and glued to our screens, the last several months of frozen competition provided an opportunity for sports franchises to experiment with creative modes of fan engagement, often involving multiple media channels.

What's more, the coronavirus crisis hasn't ended like we hoped it would by now, but the world is already talking about the "new normal" of post-pandemic life – incorporating lessons learned from the COVID-19 situation into the indefinite future, regardless of when the immediate need to curb the spread of this specific virus actually passes. And so leagues around the world have finally begun picking up play again, albeit with empty arenas for the most part.

In this sense, they face a new challenge: figuring out how to involve fans in the game experience without being able to lean on the in-stadium experience as the pinnacle that all other modes of fan engagement try to emulate and reinforce. But on another level, this is a challenge that wasn't prompted by COVID-19 and won't go away when COVID-19 does.

Many teams have seen their global fanbases grow steadily in the last few years, creating the need to serve up rich engagement for audiences who can't attend games in person regularly – or ever.

Coronavirus is encouraging franchise marketers to speed up digital transformation and find new and better ways to connect with fans online, Rob O'Siochain, a partner at London-based event marketing agency TRO, recently told Campaign magazine.

"Covid-19 is, without doubt, going to act as an accelerant for the long-awaited levelling up of the fan experience and the value attributed to the role and real data of the fan," he explained. "Brands and rights holders are going to need to work far more collaboratively, strategically and creatively to build a more diverse, direct and accessible experience for the fans."

Head back to the stadium – virtually

After months of deprivation, fans are panting to see their favorite teams. For the moment, they are so eager to return to live sports that they are ecstatic over any live game broadcast. On July 5, some 5.7 million people tuned in to the Southampton v. Manchester City match, making it the Premier League's most-watched match ever.

But as time goes by, the shine of live sports will wear off. An empty stadium is disappointing both for viewers at home and for players. The NFL's "virtual draft" event in April drew a larger audience (15.6 million) than Monday Night Football did last weekend (14 million), even though the former was little more than a televised Zoom call while the latter was a marquee matchup between two of the hottest teams in the league, the Chiefs and the Ravens.

The time has come for the sports industry to find creative ways to harness technology for the next generation of fan engagement. What can we learn about the future based on what worked best during the pandemic?

Breathe new life into regurgitated content 

Filling up gaps in the programming schedule with reruns of classic games worked well at first, but returns are diminishing. Success requires networks to put more work into their content choices.

Tommy Stimson, managing director at Qualitative Insights, points out that fans aren't very interested in games from the last 10-12 years. Footage from these games is already widely available online, plus "The known outcome and familiarity with the content makes the reruns less-than-satisfying." Instead, Stimson recommends showing iconic, historical sports moments that most of today's fans haven't seen or experienced.

Fans appreciate reruns far more when the footage is interspersed with new analysis and commentary, either from current players or from the athletes who were playing at the time. One of the darlings of Netflix's pandemic-era programming lineup, Michael Jordan's The Last Dance documentary, which followed the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls on their title run, drew an average of 5.6 million viewers for each of its ten episodes.

Many teams hosted social media-integrated "watch parties," where former players shared their personal memories and fielded questions from fans while streaming classic games, and fans were delighted with the multi-screen experience, which dovetailed perfectly with game rerun telecasts. One poll found that 76 percent of U.S. fans want more watch party-style viewing options moving forward.

screenshot of New England Patriots re-watch party ad

Screenshot of New England Patriots re-watch party ad

Credit: Facebook

Networks would also do well to tap into the deeper reasons why people follow sports, by sharing narratives about how teams come together as a unit, or times when players overcame adversity. Viewers are eager for behind-the-scenes content that reveals how players stay in shape, how managers set strategies, or the motivating factors behind decisions to trade, draft, and otherwise acquire talent.

As brands collect more viewer data, they can also deliver more personalized content experiences that engage fans more deeply.

Invite fans to vote for in-game elements

Giving fans ways to have a real effect on in-game elements is another winner for the sports industry. Juventus has long been a trail-blazer for digital transformation, so it's no big surprise to see the storied soccer franchise leading the way again.

Juventus invited fans to vote for its new in-stadium goal celebration song using Socios, a token-based voting and rewards platform, to ensure that the results wouldn't be sabotaged by rival fans or manipulated by hackers.

Credit: Twitter

Fans overwhelmingly chose Blur's "Song 2," and were rewarded by hearing the song four times in the first back-to-business game between Juventus and Cagliari.

Socios has been doing some interesting work in the digital fan engagement realm beyond the Juventus example. Its parent company, Chiliz, partners with teams to issue blockchain-based, franchise-branded coins. Apollon Limassol FC decided to put on a head-to-head skills challenge between players, with fans using tokens to vote on the matchups. In esports, itself a social distancing-friendly concept, fans of Spanish team Heretics were able to vote on which players would go head to head in Fortnite death-matches.

Encourage fans to connect together at home

Part of the beauty of sports is that it forges relationships. Season ticket holders connect with neighboring seatmates in the stadium; families bond over a shared love for their teams; friends come together to watch the big match and analyze it ceaselessly during and after the game.

It's difficult to translate this to a situation where even private socializing is frowned upon, but it's not impossible.

To build hype as the NFL season neared, Pepsi tapped into this demand with a "Tailgate-in-a-box" kit that includes an outdoor projector and a range of Pepsi products. The kit is valued at $5,000 and was delivered to sweepstake winners, so it's unclear how this will translate into the general market, but the opportunity is clear. Pepsi is also experimenting with a "tailgate tour" that brings live music and outdoor games to fans viewing from home.

The NBA led the way recently by offering 320 fans the opportunity to "attend" games in the Orlando bubble. At-home viewers logged in through Microsoft Teams, and their streamed likenesses were beamed onto 17-foot video boards set up around the courts. The tech made it look like viewers were sitting next to each other, plus participants could interact with each other and see and hear their reactions in real time. The NBA has other plans to allow fans to chat during games, display a real-time statistical overlay, and introduce gaming elements as well.

NBA Instagram screenshot

Credit: Instagram

Technological advances, including virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR), offer teams new ways to offer virtual fan experiences.

Another option that could become very popular is audio AR. Powerful recording equipment picks up the minutiae of sounds that make up the audio backdrop of in-stadium viewing, and then broadcasts it to at-home viewers. AR allows the noise to grow louder or fainter as viewers "move" closer to or further away from the action. Brands can even add crowd sounds, like gasps at a near miss or the shouts of vendors, to enhance the experience.

In Japan, an app called Remote Cheerer allowed fans to capture their real-time reactions to on-field action and actually play triggered sounds in the stadium, instead of the canned crowd noise we've hearing in our MLB, NFL and NHL telecasts. This type of solution keeps fans at home more engaged and makes even the passive TV watching experience more authentic.

A new era for sports fan engagement

COVID-19 has sharpened the need for the sports industry to undergo digital transformation. Fans stuck at home need new ways to engage with their favorite teams, including in-game interactions, VR and AR tech that creates the feel of the stadium in their living-rooms, and better ways to connect remotely with other fans, as well as improved content choices to fill in the gaps when games can't be held.

A combination of creativity and new technology can break new ground for fan engagement in the sports industry, and the best innovations are already being cherry picked for further development over the years ahead.

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