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Volume 27 No. 10
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Four ways that sports can stay in the game

Sports is one of many industries suffering from the devastating effects of COVID-19. The impact felt across the sports business world has been immediate and crippling. 

Agencies are tasked with helping to solve problems or optimize opportunities for clients. Obviously, this particular challenge goes far beyond sports, and is one the most formidable challenges of the 21st century for those around the world dealing with the hardship of sickness and loss, and millions of global citizens who find themselves looking for employment.

Sports organizations are uniquely positioned to make a difference in society while simultaneously maintaining close relationships with their fans. Here are a few examples:

Leveraging the power of your digital fan base

Sports have always been a great unifying force in society. As a reflection of this, leagues, governing bodies, teams, athletes, and media companies have accumulated sizable digital audiences over the years. Sports organizations have an opportunity to both educate and activate their digital audiences to contribute to the global good in a time of need.

One great example of education was Golden State Warriors star StephCurry going on Instagram Live to talk about the coronavirus with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.  Nearly 50,000 viewers tuned in, including Barack Obama, Justin Bieber, rapper Common, and former teammate Andre Iguodala. What was remarkable about this activation was how substantial the information exchange was between Curry and Dr. Fauci, providing in-depth insights on COVID-19, testing, and social distancing for nearly 30 minutes. Where many sports fans may have expected a light-hearted conversation, what transpired was a meaningful interaction that showed depth, caring, and concern that builds a deeper connection and relationship with fans.

On the activation side, asking a fan to donate $1, $2, $5 to a nonprofit or charitable cause through a sports organization’s social channels to fight against COVID-19 feels both doable financially for the fan, and (more importantly) facilitates one of the most impactful ways a sports organization can leverage its passionate audience in a time of need.

Re-thinking content and expanding audience

Sports organizations have been scrambling to build a refreshed archive content strategy. This is a fantastic approach for a few weeks. Beyond that, even the most die-hard fans will begin to waver, unless you can develop something truly unique.  

NASCAR did just that by pulling together a virtual race that featured a 35-car field stacked with real-life current and past hall of fame drivers. The inaugural eNASCARiRacingPro Invitational Series race on March 22 drew 903,000 viewers on FS1, making it the highest-rated esportsTV program to date, and the most-watched broadcast on FS1since mass sports event cancellations began on March 12. 

In addition to refreshing archive content, some organizations are exploring partnerships with completely different sports or entertainment properties. This approach creates an opportunity to reach new audiences and develop interesting and unexpected connection points, which can often lead to compelling content. Leveraging archive footage can provide a completely new perspective or experience rather than simply repostingold highlights.

Channel migration

Where fans would normally turn to social channels for bite-sized, real-time updates or highlights, they're now itching to find competition and live game experiences. Channels like Twitch, Steam, Epic Games, etc. are smashing concurrent viewership, time spent, download, and revenue goals. Sports organizations that can commit to creating content and experiences for these gaming and livestreamingchannels can not only mitigate audience loss in the near term, but can also build new digital connection points for the future while staying top-of-mind with their fans.

The Phoenix Suns decided to simulate the rest of their NBA regular-season games on NBA2K, streamed on Twitch. The team partnered with a Phoenix-based Twitch influencer, and their first game against the Dallas Mavericks drew 221,000 views, including 126,000 unique views. To drive deeper integration of the real world into the virtual world, the Suns are now working through ways to develop in-arena activations like a T-shirt toss virtually on Twitch, trying to get creative around serving fans and supporting the gaming community in fun ways.

Post-COVID-19 strategy

One of the biggest pieces of strategic work we're all developing right now is a post-COVID-19 strategy. When society returns from social distancing hibernation there will inevitably be a new normal.  

From a fan perspective, this may include a hesitation to attend live events, and will definitely include some level of financial hardship. This means that the immediate spending power and value of a fan will go down. How sports organizations adjust and accommodate for this over time will be extremely important. We believe this transition will most likely happen in phases, as sports businesses gradually return to full strength financially in accordance with their sponsors and fans.

As an industry, the sports business thrives on values that are associated with winning. Perseverance, dedication, and an unending pursuit of excellence both on and off the field are hallmarks of any client we’ve worked with, no matter what the sport. Now, more than ever, the sports industry needs to embody these values.

Craig Howe is the CEO and founder of Rebel Ventures, an agency dedicated to helping sports organizations transform into modern media and entertainment businesses.