As these lines are being written, Italy has been in lockdown for exactly 20 days due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Factories, schools, universities, offices, everything is closed, events have been cancelled, assemblies of any sort are prohibited.
It is an unprecedented period, not only in the history of Italy, but internationally as well: if it is true that during the world wars the planet had already experienced a similar state of emergency, it is also true that the contextual conditions are profoundly different.
Communication will save us
Closed in our homes, we immediately sought refuge in the two great means of communication of our time, television and Internet. The cathode ray tube was present (yet not as widespread) even during the last world war, whereas Internet represents the great revolution of this incredible situation. Covid-19 is the world’s first “digitalized” emergency.
Sports is without a doubt, among the industries that immediately flooded the network with more rapidity and greater energy, inundating the main content platforms. Teams, athletes and championships, of course, but also journalists, sporting goods producers, commentators and managers suddenly began filling newspapers columns, virtual bulletin boards and timelines on social networks in an attempt to compensate for the absence of played sports.
The entertainer par excellence of modernity, also thanks to the active presence of highly structured communication and social media management offices, has attacked the world of communication (particularly online) in an honest and at times bold manner, alternating podcasts, competitions, online aperitifs, videos from the past and even colouring pages.
Partly out of fear, partly as a purification exercise and partly out of necessity, often all these activities were carried out without an actual strategic plan. As mentioned above, we are faced with an episode that knows no precedents: for many, if not all, this is year zero. With one hope: communication will save us. It is now necessary to see if this assumption is necessarily true and how best to direct the relevant efforts.
Sports, the admission, the crisis
Before embarking on analyses or comments it is necessary to firmly establish an assumption, with both considerable seriousness and serenity. The world of sports, due to Coronavirus, has suddenly entered a moment of great and profound crisis, probably the worst in the history of international sports.
This crisis is far from being conceptual: it is effective, tangible, absolutely concrete. For everyone involved in the sports world (and here Hardy and Mullin’s concept of “sports product”, which represented the totality of the action and realities in sports, is quite convenient), this crisis takes on different aspects and forms which however have a minimum common denominator, that is the economic repercussions on employment and its future existence.
Complicated theoretical constructions are not needed to understand the situation. If games aren’t played (or if races and sporting events aren’t held), all the “raison d’être” for the livelihood of a sector go missing. If data were needed to frame the issue at a proportional level, it is sufficient to highlight here that football/soccer is the third industry in the Italian system.
If games aren’t played, tickets and merchandising aren’t sold, there will be no sponsors, sports shoes or gym passes will no longer be needed. There will be no need for circuits, or stadium maintenance, or sports communication agencies or sponsorship agencies. Sports journalists will have nothing to talk about, photographers will have no photos to take, televisions will have nothing to transmit and its technicians will have nothing to film, edit or produce. In short, the list is potentially infinite.
Crisis communication in sports and in life
Public communication scholars are quite familiar with the concept of crisis communication, or rather, all the sets of strategies and tactics to be put in place when something unexpected happens and which seriously jeopardizes the reputation of a company or a subject. Warren Buffet, a famous American entrepreneur, stated that “it takes twenty years to build a company’s reputation and it takes five minutes to destroy it.”
According to theory, the crisis is made up of seven different layers: alarm, fear, impact, evaluation, rescue, remedy, recovery. These divisions are far from being theoretical and even in the sports world these steps are unfortunately being applied in a fairly orderly manner by the evolution of the facts.
There was an alarm – a virus is coming from China whose sanitary extent is startling; fear – if this problem continues it will be necessary to cancel events, including sports; impact – all events, sports included, are actually cancelled.
We are now, following the theoretical line, at the evaluation phase, whereby we must take stock of the new world and equip ourselves with the tools to face it. The rescue stage will follow, or rather the implementing action to end the emergency, then the remedy phase and finally recovery, that is, the return to a pre-emergency situation.
Actually for some time now, crisis communication has not been specific to industrial groups: many sports realities have had to equip themselves in this way to deal with scandals and difficult moments, for example, of fraud or doping. We need simply look at how large sports realities dealt with the cases of Lance Armstrong or the New England Patriots deflate-gate or, more recently, the death of Kobe Bryant, to name a few.
It is therefore worth making one point clear here. If it is true that the first rule of crisis communication is to be prepared for the crisis (hypothesising future scenarios or evaluating possible weaknesses), it was impossible for anyone to predict, with sufficient foresight, what would be forthcoming prior to the Wuhan events in China and eventually Codogno in Lombardy. As if to say: of course, today there is a crisis, but no one actually saw it coming.
This seemingly trivial point is actually central to answering many questions that are clasping the world of sports, sports commentaries and sports sponsorship these days. The truth, in fact, is that there are no answers to many questions, simply because no one has ever asked the questions. When will the championship start again? Who wins if it suspended? Are the wages paid if the games aren’t played? What is the sponsor’s role if races aren’t held? These are important issues, however, destined to remain unanswered: most of the contracts signed before the coronavirus did not foresee even a fraction of everything that has occurred in the last thirty days.
Communicating in the dark and the novice’s turn
Due to the absence of theoretical guidelines (as a result of the absurdity of the situation, already mentioned) we are quite probably now witnessing the most disparate and experimental attempts at communication. With the intent of thinking positively, it is certainly a moment of great growth for the world of sports communication: the facts are forcing us to look at new ideas with old tools, to build a product that is missing and to accompany users in a world that is invisible.
As mentioned above, we start from scratch and the size of the structures does not necessarily guarantee a positive result. Small blogs run by local sports journalists are conquering the net with brilliant ideas, while gigantic sports properties barely manage in the policy and legal environments that are holding them back. Some celebrities are appearing as champions, while others as flops and, unfortunately, will be remembered for a long time. Some groups are showing a previously unknown side of themselves, while others are showing a distinctly inelegant side.
We have seen, in short, in these first weeks of crisis, communication that is often in the dark, which is seeking the right path between the infinite choice of possible options far from traditional channels; in an honest attempt to be relevant both to their public and their investors.
Every man for himself, God for us all
What is the purpose, therefore, of sports communication in this time of crisis? The question is trivial only superficially.
After an initial, and fortunately shared, moment of participation and involvement, many communication strategies are now at a crossroads. It is clear that various sports figures communicate for different reasons and for different purposes.
If we take a sports shoe manufacturer it is clear that, aside from social responsibilities, its purpose will be to find a way to sell as many products as possible. If we take a sports broadcasting company, we can assume that its purpose is to remain as attractive as possible so as not to lose subscribers. If we reflect on a sports team, it would not be incorrect to think that it should not only pamper its fans but it also shouldn’t lose contact with its sponsors. Sponsors, in turn, must find a way to continue to exploit the popularity and visibility of sports properties. Likewise, athletes must remain newsworthy and known to the public in order not to lose positions on the sports and commercial market.
This is not a simple task and, beyond the noblest of purposes, many today are wondering how to approach the crises communication with more pragmatic types of resolutions. Basically, how can we speak well of what is happening at the moment? Perhaps by being close to one’s community while trying to restart the driving force of economic activities?
Ideally, clearing delays and avoiding easy puritan stigmatization is the way forward. The sports world is entertainment aimed externally (i.e. the fans) and it is a full-fledged internal industry, with salaries to be paid, pending suppliers, seasons to prepare, accounts to be saved and so on.
Opportunities and risks
No doubt, therefore, one of the most interesting issues concerns the opportunity of communication. Opportunity here is obviously to be intended as “being opportune“, “not being perceived as out of place.” Since internet continually offers the possibility for Teams, Athletes and sponsors to carry out business-related work even outside of sporting events (such as activities to maximize the visibility of sponsors or the promotion of their shops), then the risk of coming across speculators is always just around the corner. In short, the line between the commercial opportunity and poor taste is very thin.
Those who, like us, deal with sponsors know very well how important it is, for example, to give value to a sponsorship program when races are not being held, games are not taking place and when events are cancelled. It is easy to turn to the net in an attempt, often awkward but honest, to give partners what the virus has taken away, that is, the possibility to reach out to millions of spectators. The temptation therefore to produce posts, interventions and activities for third parties or to include product publicity for commercial purposes is both understandable and legitimate.
However, this hand outstretched towards its adventure companions (as we usually define sponsors) cannot transcend the serious circumstance in which we find ourselves. It is probably more opportune to wait a few weeks before resuming with the correct advertising hype and concentrate, in the initial phase, on social communication and responsibility.
In the future, we are certain that the companies that have been able to keep quiet on purely commercial issues will be appreciated more than those which, at all costs, have tried to force their hand on maximizing sponsorships.
This is clearly a very difficult balance to find, in terms of weight and time. When can we start talking about sponsorships, contracts, sales and business opportunities? And how much should these activities have an influence on the communicative totality during the day or week? And how much can a wolf be disguised as a lamb, masking the need for the opportunity required by the particular moment?
Real charity and PR charity
Post-charity communication is a process that is seen frequently nowadays.
I have very strong views on the subject: elegance would have it that true charity should be done with the cameras turned off. Making a nice gesture and then showing it immediately is neither gentlemanly nor ideal for communicative purposes. On the contrary, when voluntary work and charity are clearly a PR tool, there is a risk of obtaining results that are the opposite to those hoped for.
Again, this is a matter of being opportune.
Many, certainly without malice, during the initial days of emergency had triumphantly paraded stating that they had purchased fans or the supply of masks or donated to this or that hospital. Noble gestures, necessary and useful during a moment of national emergency, yet which do not entirely convince me. These gestures, however, lose their credibility when anticipated through press releases by internal communication offices.
Volunteer work should take place far from journalists, otherwise there would be nothing wrong with calling public relations offices for what they are. All the better, in short, to give things their proper name, and all the better if they lead to appropriate objectives.
From real to virtual, and vice versa
As we write, the first Stay At Home GP organized by the MotoGP championship has just ended on the virtual platform of the top motorcycling video game. 10 official riders took part in a Joypad competition: the two Marquez brothers, Aleix Espargaro, Pecco Bagnaia, Fabio Quartararo, the Suzuki duo Mir and Rins, Leucona, Oliveira and Maverick Vinales.
The initiative, which has also been taken up in other forms by other sports series such as Formula 1 and IndyCar, has multiple advantages, net of the evident absence of adrenaline that a real race provides.
In the first instance, it is an instrument of continuity. In the absence of the actual races, it was an intelligent move by Dorna (Championship rights holder) to offer ideas in order to ferry fans, and not just due to the winter break, to the moment when races can start once again on the actual tracks.
Secondly, it is a shift of focus that can be of absolute interest to fans: the drivers, filmed in their homes and away from race-day tension, can be seen from a different perspective. We rarely get to see world champion Marquez horsing around with his brother in the kitchen, or Esparagro chasing children around the sofa between games.
Finally, and I believe the theme is worth mentioning here, virtual games offer an alternative to the visibility generated for sponsors which – albeit in a very small format – can see their brands and their colours appear on virtual motorcycles.
It is clear, particularly to lovers of this type of recreation, that streaming video game matches was neither invented today nor by MotoGP. On the contrary, platforms such as Twitch and the success of famous gamers and youtubers (which have risen to world celebrity level) for years have been testifying the planetary importance taken on by the world of gaming.
Nevertheless, what matters at this stage is the exchange (by will or by force, as the saying goes) between the played sports and the video game sports, in which the actual athletes compete on digital platforms. We move from reality to virtual waiting to go back, hopefully soon, to reality, with the same protagonists.
It is difficult to say today if this Stay At Home Gp could become a trend to pursue as a fun experiment or a trend that will eventually fade away. What is certain is that there will be other events, where some of the Teams – like Ducati – who are not present today, have stated they will participate.
It is equally certain that, after this pandemic is over, the relationship between played sports and video game sports will no longer be the same. The importance of the gaming industry and the growing worldwide attention to video games require the organizers, the series, the leagues and probably also the teams to pay attention to the gaming aspect, which is capable of involving hundreds of thousands of players every day in every corner of the world.
Who’s going to get tired first? A binge-reading problem
A topic that will need to be addressed in the coming days is no doubt the amount of communication arriving from all stakeholders in the sports industry. If, as mentioned, it was understandable to see the great mass racing to the network during the early days of the pandemic, it is now necessary to ask how long it will be appropriate to continue offering videos of athletes training, past events, live Instagram of players or surveys on the preferred coating on Formula 1 cars.
It is not unjustified to foresee, in the immediate future, phenomena of over-reading and habituation from such communication hype. Even the most avid fan, who today craves for a bit of played football/soccer or some action in the World Cup championships, will probably get tired of this communication aggression (obviously in a hyperbolic and figurative sense).
In short, as if to say: you cannot think of totally replacing the dense pre-Coronavirus sports schedule with an equally dense schedule of posts on Facebook and stories on Instagram.
The risk is that of making one of the great strengths of the sports vehicle fail, or rather, of being a (not strictly speaking) pull instead of push medium. Going back to the sports sponsorships aspect, dear to us, we can say that they work precisely because they include rather than intrude: the advertising message is enclosed within an event that the viewer wishes to watch and not forced as in the “push” mode of communication. We should, therefore, be careful not to transform sports into publicity for sports, potentially disliked even by the most passionate fan.
Inform, amuse and distract, with attention and sincerity
Today, more than ever, in this very precise historical moment, the sports world must take on the role of entertainer intelligently. In hard times for lives and consciences, the public must be able to turn to sport (and to sports communication) as a relief valve and a moment of distraction. Reruns of historical competitions, in-depth columns, prize games and pastime, if administered with courtesy and measure, are useful tools to make a large part of the population, who are forced to stay at home waiting for the nightmare to end, “relax and feel at ease”, at least for a while.
Informing, entertaining and distracting must be the main functions to be pursued for anyone who practices sports communication because it shouldn’t be forgotten, even if the temptation is strong, that the final consumer is the main objective of sports in general. Whether it is, as already mentioned, a machine to colour, a basketball video game, a workout to be replicated in one’s home or an old rerun of past events; during this period, sports must basically serve as a great peacekeeper of everyday life.
Clearly, the challenge for today’s communicators is to know, with intelligence and opportunity, how to mix external and internal objectives, while paying close attention to sponsors, investors, partners and other industry stakeholders. This mix is far from being easy, especially after a while, when we start to run out of fresh topics, unknown issues and unpredictable paths.
The new ancient world
One day, hopefully not too far down the line, these difficult times we are going through will only be a memory. When this happens, perhaps without too much fanfare, the world of sports, sports communication, sports marketing and sponsorships will have profoundly changed. Like all the great moments of historical change, even this emergency, with its exotic name “Covid-19”, will have marked a point of no return for professionalism, awareness and skills: sports will not be exempt from this type of evaluation.
This period in time will, most likely, leave us with huge gaps, yet also with new riches and new tools. We will undoubtedly have rediscovered a new side of our profession and our industry, which perhaps today, for the first time, we see from above as a whole, with this strange and shared sense of unity.
The hope, the wish, is that the aftermath is better than what we had previously; that we become stronger, more conscientious and more in line with one another. A little shaken, perhaps, but better off.