• Sian Downes

Connecting During Covid

By Issy Mowatt

Sport 2.0 has begun. Sport that is consumed not in person but through different online channels is now the norm. If you can successfully involve your fans in the sport throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, create even more loyal fans, new fans or traitor fans, then the scope for what you will be able to do when normality resumes undoubtedly will be furthered.

Over the last few years, innovative content, created to keep fans engaged in their favourite sports and encourage a new generation of fans, has already changed the way sport is consumed. From the start of online Fantasy football leagues in 1997 to TikTok trends, the scope for fan engagement is only increasing. With COVID-19 keeping everyone at home glued to their phones and computers and many events and leagues paused indefinitely, which sports and teams are making the most out of the times rather than letting their fans slip away?

Here are some of my personal favourites:

- With the MLB (Major League Baseball) resuming in late July, the fans had something to look forward to. Although fans could not support in person, one teams efforts particularly caught my eye. The Pittsburgh Pirates rewarded one of their season ticket holders, by sending him the ball that landed in his seat, during a game played without fans. This feeling of emotional connection to a team is what drives fans to continue their support. This little gesture that later went viral, then also kept all other season ticket holders and long-time supporters, invested in the new season as maybe they too would receive a similar letter and match ball. Smaller scale efforts like this, with a more personal touch, still provide fans a unique experience, rather than the same experience that everybody receives through the angle of the camera.

- On a larger scale the Esports and gaming channels have been particularly rewarding for fans. The eNASCAR event was broadcast on TV and many F1 fans got their fix, during the period when the season was halted, by live streaming their favourite drivers race each other (and popstars), on the iRacing game, through the streaming service Twitch. Twitch reported an increase of 20% in usage hours and subscriptions to the Formula1 channel skyrocketed. Being able to interact with the drivers in the comments section and hearing the conversations between them while racing, allowed fans a greater look into the drivers on a more personal level. The racers were so involved that Ferrari driver, Charles Leclerc’s own girlfriend had to sign up to his twitch channel and comment on the stream to let her back into their apartment. Again, these more personal level interactions with athletes only further the support and involvement of the fans.

- When the Bundesliga was the first to restart on May the 16th with a matchup between Borussia Dortmund and Schalke, I myself, having never watched the German football league before, was desperate for a fix of live sport so sat myself down, along with the other 6 million viewers to watch the game. Finding myself intrigued by the clubs involved I researched and found that Dortmund, from the 19-24th of August were holding a virtual tour of Asia. To tap-into their Asian market they had planned to play friendlies across Asia over the summer. With COVID stopping this from happening they created a virtual tour. Holding zoom meet and greets, merchandise giveaways and live streaming training practices and matches planned. A more unique proposal has been that the team will send a branded bus to a fans house and take him to work! Who knows how that marketing strategy will go down, but at least its unique? By tapping into this market and engaging with the new fans they have retained, and more than likely increased, non-domestic fan involvement.

- Along with foreign markets, teams want to create a new generation of fans. The younger generation have been glued to Netflix and YouTube during this lockdown and to tap into this the NBA brought forward its release of its Michael Jordan documentary the Last Dance on Netflix. As someone who lives for sports documentaries, but not particularly involved in the world of Basketball I did not go into watching the series with high hopes that I would emerge as a newfound avid fan. Oh how naïve, Netflix’s F1: Drive to Survive had already made me fall in love with Daniel Riccardo (and of course the whole sport) this year, why would it not succeed again. Spoiler, it did. These Netflix insights into sports, past and present, have been great for finding new fans and showing the world a different side of the sports. Fans want deeper insights into their teams/athletes and a new perspective now and then. Although these big budget Netflix shows are great, they are not something every sport or team can even dream about. More financially suitable is Youtube. Athletes can become YouTube stars and the growth during lockdown has been monumental. Nile Wilson for Gymnastics, Basketball’s Stephen Curry, Juju Smith-Shuster (NFL) and Sasha Corbin (Netball), all have successful YouTube channels, which have continued to create content through COVID, that not only entertains but includes tips for young athletes. By creating personal content that young people feel they can benefit from, fan bases will naturally grow.

- The NFL’s Seattle Seahawks are also keeping young fans engaged by providing parents ways to keep their kids active and entertained when they’re not focused on schoolwork. The Seahawks have created weekly activities directed at kids that are posted on their website and send out via email to subscribed fans, with players making cameos and encouraging kids to stay active and keep learning. By children seeing their favourite players lead them in an activity these children are more invested in the players and the team in the long run when the season starts up again in September. This nice touch to keep children active and involved with the teams hopefully helps not only the team but the wider fan community.

- On another level, the multimillion-dollar partnership of McLaren with new fan engagement app IQONIQ, created quite the buzz. This app aims to collate all fan engagement efforts under one platform to easily bring fans closer to their teams and provide them with further exclusive insights. The app will launch in September 2020 and will reward fan loyalty with prizes and exclusive merchandise as well as the content that is not accessible through other services. Other clubs included on the app so far are Barcelona and Marseilles Football Club and multiple European basketball teams. If this app’s launch is successful and more sports and teams are added to its line-up this could spell a dramatic shift towards an all-in-one solution for fans and Sports franchises in their approach towards platforms for fan involvement.

Fans are the key component of the Sports world. Without their support and passion for sport and its stars, the system does not work. If fans are not satisfied with the efforts made by their teams and athletes to engage with the wider public, will they even want to re-enter the stadiums, arena’s and tracks when they re-open? Will some deem the at home experience developed over this period as better than the live event. I believe no, the advances made in fan involvement over the past and future few months will only further attachments to teams and athletes (maybe not their favourite when lockdown started though) and make the return of fans even more joyful when the time comes to cheer and feel the togetherness provided by the communities created by Sport.