In Sports Marketing

Sports Marketing and Coronavirus

Covid-19 has hit hard on any sector of life. It has affected us and all that is dear to us: loved ones, habits and certainties. More than ever, this has been a global emergency, with in an influence on families, workplaces and  healthcare systems all over the world.

The effect on sports has been immediate and merciless. Events, races, matches everywhere have been cancelled, teams put in quarantine, championships called to an halt and even the pinnacle of global sports -The Olympics- postponed indefinitely. To give some context, this had never happened in human history.

Sports marketers all over the world found themselves in a strange and new situation: their audience was at home longing for content, but the very core of sport -football matches, car races, tennis games- just could not be produced. Also, these marketers themselves were sitting at home, with very little to no equipment to produce top-end content.

Not only it was high time for new ideas, but for a whole new concept of sports product: one that could be created and broadcasted from home to home, that required no hypersonic tech nor knowledge and could -ultimately- give something back to sponsors, whose patience was starting to wearing thin.


Sports and esports: an unstoppable acceleration

Many of the world’s most popular sports tried switching from real to virtual, with a helping hand from the gaming industry, possibly one of the greatest winners in this pandemic.

Formula 1, Formula E and Tennis, along with the major global series in sports, have used their officially licensed games to provide their fans with a virtual experience and a way to keep the sponsors happy. Tournaments have been thrown, celebrities have been chiming in and world-class athletes have had a chance to show off their skills or to boost their Twitch following.

While these games cannot be a substitute for the “real thing”, surely they did offer some solace to the fans and to the athletes, who all of a sudden had the chance to showcase a different, more human aspect of themselves.

Soon, online events turned into more organized races and matches, with many series and leagues asking the full grid to join and -ultimately- setting up a point system for the winners. Formula E was a notable success in that sense: the all-electric championship put on a full Grand Prix with all their drivers at the lights and points up for grabs.

The acceleration toward the esports and the mix between real events and virtual ones is now a must.

MotoGP and COVID-19

MotoGP of course is no exception. The pinnacle of two-wheel racing, who had been licensing the official MotoGP game to the Milestone studio for years, quickly joined the swing towards the esports. A swing that was eased by the already existing MotoGP eSports Championship, an online tournament played across the Season by gamers from home who, ultimately, show up for the final Grand Prix of the Season in a in-presence event held in the Valencia Paddock in November.

It was therefore a no-brainer for Dorna -the rights holder of the MotoGP world championship- to add the real riders in the mix and have them compete in a virtual season which has now reached round three. The virtual races were aired on TV by the MotoGP broadcasters and could count on all the support offered to real GP’s: professional commentary, pre and post races interviews and a powerful social media coverage provided for a more than pleasant overall experience.

Again, comparing the actual rubber and asphalt to the digital racing would be a mistake. However, virtual races are an efficient and viable way to quench the fans’ thirst and to mitigate the lack of visibility for sponsors.

Sports marketing after COVID-19

Sport and Social Media is booming, but so is long content

Just as everyone had predicted, social media have been massive throughout this pandemic, with teams and athletes trying to remain relevant and to keep their fan engaged using their profiles. Social media marketers truly had to go through their bag of tricks to display an array of solutions, old and new, that could make up for a whole new show schedule.

From Instagram stories to Facebook lives, from online aperitifs to podcasts, from throwbacks to competitions, it is possibile that we have learned more about social media in these 60 days than in the past 6 years.

So sumptuous and copious was the content that was published online on a daily basis that a new problem started to slowly emerge: screen time burnout. People at home, whose timelines had started to be clogged by yet another Instagram interview and yet another photo contest, started to back down from this social bonanza, longing for higher-quality products.

After an initial stage where all the content was eagerly consumed, the second step for the audience was to carefully select what to watch. It is already high time to move towards quality and to structure precisely all the fan-addressed activities.

It should therefore come as no surprise that while social media remains a very powerful tool in every marketer’s toolbox, the pandemics has shown us a return to what was a semi-forgotten type of tactic: the long-form content.

Sport documentaries, sports-based tv series and docu-films surely represent the other side of the coin in this quarantine. Top-end productions, such as Netflix’s “drive to survive”, “Sunderland ’til i die” or Red Bull’s “undaunted” surely lived a newfound glory.

While the list is endless, we need here to mention the extra-ordinary success of the NBA-themed Netflix’s series “The Last Dance”, which has been dubbed “the TV event of the century” by many commentators has drawn an audience of 24+ Million viewers in the United States alone for the first 4 episodes.

A new trend starts to emerge: Coronavirus and Testimonials, new challenges

Athletes, rather than teams or events, have clearly been under the spotlight during the past weeks. With no action on the fields or on the tarmac, sportsmen and sportswomen represented a huge part of the focus for fans and media.

Again, it was an unprecedented situation: these superstars are certainly used to deal both with journalists and aficionados at games and press conferences, but have low to zero experience when it comes to being interviewed on Instagram by a stranger while sitting on their couch.

We learned, sometimes the hard way, that full access is a double edged sword offering both risks and opportunities. Those who are naturally more extroverted and sociable tend to be highly rewarded when being communicative is key, while those who by their own nature are more shy have a difficult time in emerging through the clutter.

These qualities, we found out, can and must be trained: being an exceptional athlete doesn’t mean to be an exceptional communicator. It is therefore necessary to train them even outside the pitch or the track in order to make them perform at their best in favor of their partners or sponsors.

The basics of social media use, PR schooling, and awkward question management will be from now on required even more to sportsmen and sportwomen. And their support in emergency communication will have to be part of their duty and sanctioned in contracts.

Again, this is one of the things that sports marketing and sports markeeters will inherit from the pandemics.

How can I advertise through sport after COVID-19?

Sponsor can still advertise through the pandemics, using their assets to reach their audience,  passing messages of social responsibility at first, thus reinforcing their relationship with the target.

It’s a personal opinion that sponsors should stick to their teams and be faithful as much as the fans are to their loved colors.

If sponsorship is a tool that creates strong relationships and bonds, this surely is one of those moments when the strength of the relationship can be tested and reinforced. More than that, this is key to build brand reputation and preference: not many fans would appreciate sponsors that leaving teams in times like these.

When everything will eventually be back to normal, loyal brands will kick off from a stronger position, with the gratitude of fans will resulting in a stronger, more effective bond. Sort of a “we’ve been through this together” philosophy. Also, I think that starting a sponsorship program now will buy brands the gratitude and appreciation of the property’s supporter.


Reopening Sports: to infinity and beyond

Lastly, we need to address the elephant in the room.

It will take months, if not years, to go back to a pre-COVID condition, and this is especially true for sports. What seemed perfectly normal just six months ago, things like going to the races together or gathering in a square for the World Cup, is now a far illusion. The simple fact of boarding a plane to attend an event in another country, like many of us were doing regularly, is out of the question for the upcoming months.

The end of the emergency will largely result in a new beginning, rather than a wayback machine trip to the past, and what happens next is just as pivotal.

All major series and championships are already at the drawing board, designing new tools and scenarios to re-open the major competitions and tournaments. There is nothing theoretical here: rather, the problem is a very pragmatic one. Players need to be tested, staff need sorting between necessary and non-necessary, contact with other people has to be avoided, traveling needs re-thinking, access to facilities needs re-designing.

It is a brand new world, indeed, but there is more. Fans will not be allowed into arenas and stadiums and race circuits for a long time and while this surely salvages important matters such as TV rights and tournament completion, it also poses a serious threat to other aspects, like non-visibility-bound sponsorships, hospitality packages, VIP suites, matchday incomes and so on.

There are a lot of questions that need answering. For instance, what will sport properties offer to their sponsor, if experiential marketing is out of the equation and there are no fan-zones or offline opportunities to engage with the fans? And what happens to the sport economies if match day monies are nowhere to be found and if local sponsorships are on the verge or wearing thin?

So, this is it? All hope is lost? I think not.

Reopening sports means first of all rethinking sports and sports marketing.

If we consider this as an opportunity more than just a danger zone, we will come out of it with an unprecedented knowledge, expertise and array of new tools. Ultimately, what we as sports marketers and everyone else in the sports industry will do in the next 12 to 24 months, will shape the sport of the future.

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Riccardo Tafà
Riccardo Tafà
Managing Director for RTR Sports, Riccardo graduated in law at the University of Bologna. He began his career in London in PR, then started working in two and four-wheelers. A brief move to Monaco followed before returning to Italy. There he founded RTR, first a consulting firm and then a sports marketing company which, eventually, he moved back to London.
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