By Stefania Piva | August 19, 2020Reading Time: 6 minutes
The week of March 11, 2020 will forever be remembered as the defining moment in a sports fan’s life when the world changed and a new reality emerged. The escalation of COVID-19 created what seemed like a domino effect among sports leagues, suspending or delaying their seasons in a matter of 24 hours.
As a community used to control and commitment, there was suddenly an uncertainty as to what the future would hold for sports teams and their fans; those who purchased tickets for upcoming games, were quickly forced into a new “normal” and a world with limited answers.
This new “normal,” has shifted the way we look at the fan experience and impacted the sports industry for the foreseeable future. In this blog, we will look at how Covid has affected the sports industry and consumer patterns within it, in order to have a better understanding of how the fan experience has changed.
It seems like a lifetime ago since people were able to breathe the same air and stand less than six feet apart from each other while cheering on their favourite team. The in-game fan experience offered people the opportunity to spend quality time with their families, have drinks with friends, and engage in the camaraderie of being together with likeminded people while watching the magic of a game unfold in front of them. Fans had endless amounts of opportunities to purchase food, merchandise, or engage in in-game activations which made their experience all the more memorable.
The use of social media at games offered fans the ability to capture moments and share their experiences with others who could not attend the game. Some of the greatest moments in Canadian sport history such as Sidney Crosby’s golden goal, Jose Bautista’s unforgettable 7th inning home run, and Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater were all captured in-person, on television and on smartphones.
Fans who watched these games at home took advantage of social media and some may even argue increased online activity to stay entertained and engaged. Aside from the few social media fan engagement tactics taken by teams throughout the season, not much thought was put towards the fan experience online. But all of that changed with Covid.
Major league sports were quick to get back on their feet and introduced the concept of the “bubble” as a solution to resuming play, while also protecting the health and safety of their athletes. While this was exciting news for sports fans worldwide, teams had to sacrifice having fans being physically in the stands to make it possible.
As a result, the in-game fan experience has become more remote. With consumers being stuck at home and watching the action from a screen, fans have more time and motivation to be active online. The growth of Millennials and Generation Z as sports fans has also increased online engagement and proven to be a powerful tool in strengthening a sports brand through likes, shares and comments.
Drive-in watch parties have also become a popular way of watching games and provide families with the ability to spend time with each other outside of the home setting, while still keeping a safe distance from others. Lastly, utilizing on-demand marketing and digital activation strategies in real time has also been effective and contributed to maintaining strong fan relationships for the future.
*All rights to photos belong to the Toronto Raptors.
Although it may seem like the sports industry will experience exponential growth once their doors are opened to the public, chances are fans may not show up in the same numbers as they did before. This is due to the financial hardships that COVID-19 has caused for many families, who now find themselves having less disposable income from job losses and the instability within the current labour market. As a result, it may be awhile before some fans can see themselves spending money on sports experiences.
For those who do seek a return to the arena or stadium once re-opened, new concerns will arise over the need for social distancing. Will fans find that the new restrictions change the atmosphere or hinder their fan experience? Only time will tell.
The obvious factor that will ultimately impact fan behaviour is the sense of fear established by COVID-19 and the resulting hesitation in being in crowded areas, especially in an arena that seats over 20,000 people. Many may even hold back from attending another sporting event for years to come to take extra precaution of the situation.
With these expected consumer behaviours, the sports industry will have to realize the losses they face and seek out new revenue opportunities. Taking advantage of the technological world in which we live in and appealing to Millennials and Generation Z may be the driving force that helps the industry through this pandemic.
Digital content, OTT streaming, shoulder programming, exclusive behind-the-scenes access, artificial intelligence, and virtual reality are all active options in keeping fans engaged in the newly defined society. If limited or no fans are allowed to attend games in the future, strategically appealing to the at-home experience may be necessary.
From a business perspective, marketing may become even more important for brands to stay afloat during these unprecedented times. Therefore, being quick to react and placing a focus on these efforts to keep the fan experience top of mind will be vital.
Although the future of sports is unclear and it is difficult to predict when things will resume “as normal” I think it is safe to say that what comes out of all of this is a completely revolutionized fan experience that we never would have had had it not been for Covid.