When live sports shut down when the pandemic struck in March, things looked bleak for the industry. How and when could live sports return? But as COVID-19 has worn on, sports got innovative, constructing things like the NBA bubble in order to return to play.
The shutdown also forced sports leagues to reevaluate the ways they were doing business, which in many cases was just continuing to do business as usual. But with playing in front of live audiences in packed studios an impossibility, sports leagues have had to come up with new, innovative ways to reach fans.
And that is ultimately to the good of the business of live sports as a whole, said a panel of experts at Thursday’s virtual session, “Audience Engagement in the Age of Social Distancing,” moderated by Angela Ruggiero, CEO and co-founder of Sports Innovation Lab and four-time Olympian. The panel included Boris Gartner, CEO North America, La Liga; Miheer Walavalkar, CEO and co-founder, LiveLike; and Jean-Baptiste Alliot, innovation strategy specialist and Andrea Traverso, financial sustainability and research director, UEFA.
The key to thriving in the pandemic and post-pandemic age is to be where your fans are, and that goes far beyond the linear broadcast of games. This means setting up virtual and interactive experiences where fans can watch together, create content to post on social media, offer virtual spaces where top fans can interact with stars, and more.
“For La Liga North America, specifically, even before COVID, we had the challenge of not having physical games in the territory,” said Gartner. “We approached that through content. Content is a big word that gets thrown out a lot, but it’s a way to connect on a deeper level with our fans and be able to scale that up. There is value in connecting with fans at a live level but we’re always working to add value.”
To accomplish this, La Liga North America, which is a partnership between top men’s Spanish football league La Liga and Relevant Sports to promote the Spanish football league in the U.S. and Canada, partnered with LiveLike, billed as an audience-engagement platform, to create “one of those money-can’t-buy experiences,” Gartner said. “Fans got to meet a former player, watch the game and interact with him at half-time. It helps us bring La Liga closer to the fans over here.”
While the pandemic has pushed these sorts of activations and experiences to the forefront, it was something that was already happening prior to the pandemic, the panel agreed.
“You cannot speak of new trends, the trends were already here. Everything has been changing. Nothing is really new, it’s all just been accelerated,” said UEFA’s Alliot.
UEFA, the Union of European Football Associations, has been talking about how to advance European football since 2015, said Traverso. As part of that, UEFA has worked with LiveLike to create an innovation hub, intended to move the whole industry forward.
“Kids are consuming sports in a completely different way today,” Traverso said. “We cannot remain within our market and try to find ideas within that market, we have to go outside, open ourselves to new ideas and new actors and explore them in order to find new ways to engage with fans.”
That’s also true for live sports brands engaging with their sponsors—they need to create experiences that are both irresistible to fans while providing a return on investment for sponsors.
“For marketers, you aren’t just slapping your logo on the venue or the stream, you have to figure out how to adapt your business,” said Alliot. “Your fluid fans are not on the traditional platform. How do you shift gears to capture them? What’s the business impact?”
Part of being able to shift gears is knowing your customer, and that’s something that data can help make clear for brands.
“Knowing your audience has never been as important as it is today,” said Gartner. “If you are continuing to think about your consumer, your fan, as a monolithic persona, you’re wrong. If you don’t understand where your customer is going not just now but in five and ten years, you are going to have a hard time.”
“Our product—the matches—are the center of everything we do, but we still have to be engaging our audience with non-match content on a 24/7 schedule,” he continued. “You have to have that one-on-one relationship with them and keep on nurturing it and building it.”
One way sports brands are doing that is by partnering with technology platforms that can provide custom clips videos for fans that they can then post on their own social media handles. They also are offering digital bonuses for fans, such as custom team stickers, emojis and gifs. The NBA provided those for each team during this summer’s bubble season, but that’s something that could eventually be monetized as micro-transactions, said LiveLike’s Walavalker.
The panel also extolled the virtues of data, and that is more easily gathered and deployed on owned and operated platforms versus sending fans to social media to interact. That’s why it’s important for sports brands to develop their own platforms, said Walavalker.
“Once you start gamifying experiences, if you know a fan is more likely to buy, you can start targeting him or her,” Walavalkar said. “I don’t mean in a negative sense, especially because there are a lot of restrictions around [European and other privacy regulations], but you can collect first-party engagement data that can lead to new lines of businesses. We show [our customers] what’s possible so their business managers and developers can create new product lines.”
While the pandemic has forced sports leagues to speed up their adoption of new technology in the ever-evolving effort to reach fans, the end of the pandemic—whenever that comes—won’t mean they’ll get to slow down.
“It’s almost innovate or die at this point,” said Walavalkar. “You have to think about new ways of creating community.”
“Fans and consumers are more and more demanding, so we have to tailor their experiences to what they like. This drives a lot of opportunities,” said Alliot. “We don’t want to go back to normal, there will not be going back to normal, but the new reality will be even brighter because we’ve all seen the need to change.”