The impact of the coronavirus global pandemic on live sport cannot be underestimated. In a matter of weeks, football around the world halted, Wimbledon announced its first peacetime cancellation, and the Olympics was postponed by a year for the first time in its history.
Ironically, this lack of sport coincided with a massive rise in media consumption and exceptional demand for entertaining and informative content. Locked down consumers quite literally provided a captive audience, hungry for amusement and distraction. As a result, the media consumption habits of sports fans changed, with viewers accessing content across multiple platforms and devices, at different moments in the day and for different periods of time than they did before. And new types of content have been flourishing.
The good news is that – at last – live sport is returning. Golf, snooker, and football have resumed, although with strict social distancing guidelines and empty stadiums, the live experience is now a very different one. But the demand from fans is obvious. When the German Bundesliga returned in May, we saw a 400-500% increase in views for the first match, while South Korea’s K League reached eight million views in May, with its top five markets being Vietnam, Thailand, Egypt, the UK and the U.S.
So how has this changing sporting landscape shaped the content fans have been consuming? Are new, more interactive formats and changing patterns of viewing likely to have a lasting impact, and how will football content in particular evolve over the coming months?
The three stages of lockdown content
With a lack of live content, we found that content available from clubs and in demand from publishers and fans, followed three linear stages:
Activating the archives
Sporting bodies have at their disposal huge archives of video footage from training sessions, interviews, matches and events; often used as supporting content for live matches. This footage took centre stage and has been deployed to great effect in stand-alone format or as compilation videos on associated websites and social media channels.
Publishers and broadcasters have seen the value of this footage in keeping fans emotionally engaged with sports and maintaining audience levels. Publishers have relied more heavily on archive video content to complement their editorial articles, linking this content to relevant dates in the sporting calendar. For example, featuring a ‘best FA Cup goals’ compilation when the FA Cup final would have been taking place allowed football fans to reminisce about previous years, and share reactions with other supporters through the publisher site or on social media.
Experimenting with content during isolation and beyond
To help satisfy the need for newer content, individual stars and sports bodies have been creating their own ‘lockdown’ narratives. Fitness has been a key theme, with sports personalities from Tyson Fury to Cristiano Ronaldo filming their home workouts. Some of the best-performing video content has seen high profile figures opening up other, normally unseen areas of their lives, whether it be sharing cooking tips, volunteering, or surprise video calls to fans.
Both sporting personalities and fans also gravitated towards esports in the absence of live events, while sporting bodies have even created virtual events to replace live fixtures. Formula 1 introduced the F1 Esports Virtual Grand Prix series, for example, played using the official F1 2019 PC video game and featuring current drivers, former drivers and celebrities.
Broadcasters and publishers have also taken advantage of these virtual events, with live streaming, highlights packages, reports, and reactions. A virtual Grand National attracted five million viewers on the live screening alone, while the ePremier League invitationals, featuring top footballers playing FIFA 20, were broadcast live on Sky Sports and covered on the BBC website.
Preparing for life after lockdown
As footballers prepared for the resumption of some competitions, content turned to training sessions, Covid-19 testing, and debates about the best steps for a safe return. This gave fans access to some aspects of the game they don’t always see and also allowed for more creativity in content and formats. They could watch drone footage of their team training while social distancing, or hear players and managers speak at length about their preparations or feelings about football’s return, for example.
What next for sports content?
The resumption of live sport within strict social distancing guidelines has created its own set of challenges both for sporting bodies and the media, relating to press conferences, interviews, filming and access to stadia. And how can fans be made to feel part of the process?
There are already examples of how this might work in practice in European football. For example, fans have been allowed to have cardboard cut-outs of themselves in their stadium seats, or screens have been erected so supporters can be in the stadium in a virtual sense via Zoom. Broadcasters have been adapting to the new schedule of matches, with selected Premier League games to be screened free-to-air on the BBC, Sky and Amazon.
But it is likely that media owners and clubs will continue to explore alternative ways to keep fans involved. They could go down the hi-tech route, using VR and AR for more immersive match highlights, for example. And the popularity of longer form behind-the-scenes content during lockdown could well continue after restrictions are lifted. In a recent interview, Drew Crisp, Liverpool FC’s SVP of Digital Media and Marketing, spoke about the importance of having a genuine emotional connection with fans, and how brands could work with clubs and players to deliver this – something that goes beyond match footage and highlights, and creates new content opportunities.
Fans are hungry for sports content, whether that’s live matches, players’ fitness videos, coverage of sports simulations, or previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage. The creative use of content during difficult times has shown the possibilities for fan entertainment are endless with new and existing video footage. This creativity will continue to play a role in keeping fans engaged as live sport comes back, but also as an important complement to matches, races and events in the future.