5th May 2020
By David Vincent, Head of Content & Partnerships, Mindshare Worldwide.
There will be winners and losers from the lockdown but a surge of innovation promises to open-up a new world of experiences for sports fans and brands brave enough to play.
Sport plays a unique role in the lives of billions of people around the world, providing a powerful emotional outlet and a special way of connecting to others through a shared experience. These experiences have been dramatically removed from our lives during the COVID-19 lockdown and the way in which people have adapted to this forced separation provides clues to what the ‘new normal’ might be for live sport.
The first clue can be found in the curious story of the Belarus Premier League, which, despite almost all other professional football on the planet being suspended, has carried on as normal. The Belarus Football Federation has already agreed new broadcasting deals in ten countries, as fans replace their normal fix of live action with the only live action left.
Perhaps even more interesting is that in the UK, you can watch the BPL via a streaming service provided by Bet365, on the proviso that you open an account and place at least one bet. Quite apart from the ethical and regulatory questions sparked by a betting company broadcasting live sport, the key development is that a live stream is being made available by a business whose primary product is not media or content.
Prior to COVID-19 there was already a seismic shift taking place as new streaming platforms were changing the way we view live sport and radically altering the sports broadcast landscape. This shift is likely to accelerate in the ‘new normal’, creating an explosion of opportunities for sports fans and brands to access live content.
The second clue comes from a quick look at how Twitch has fared during the lockdown. Gaming content has seen a 35% growth in viewership which reflects a broader trend of people filling the void by watching gaming content. Indeed, a growing number of major rights owners, including La Liga, EPL, F1 and NASCAR have fully embraced the opportunity by launching their own esports events featuring their real-world stars.
The physical and virtual sports worlds will continue to grow together, even when live sports fixtures resume, particularly considering that Twitch has also seen a 25% increase in viewership of its non-gaming categories such as 'Music, Performance & Arts', 'Sports & Fitness' and 'Just Chatting'. Displaced musicians, fitness professionals and celebrities have taken to Twitch to raise money for charity, keep connected with fans and in some cases, earn money. This tells us a lot of about the appeal of platforms like Twitch that don’t just broadcast, they create a sense of community and a way for people to connect with each other whilst they watch live action unfold.
The third clue comes from the music business which very quickly pivoted towards artists broadcasting from their own homes. As is often the way, the creativity and entrepreneurialism inherent in the music industry provides inspiration to the sports industry which is traditionally a little slower to react. Direct to consumer products were already starting to re-shape the sports media landscape but a reluctance to invest in the infrastructure required to build, promote and monetise their own platforms has held many rights-holders back.
However, the story of Erykah Badu shows what’s possible. Her Quarantine Concert Series, broadcast from her bedroom in Dallas, sounds very similar to what a lot of other artists have done in the last few weeks. But it was completely different, because she built her own streaming platform with an integrated paywall and payment system, which allowed her fans to buy ‘tickets’ to the show and merchandise - and by handling it all herself rather than giving it to a streaming service, she’s created a format that works better for her and for her fans.
How this approach might manifest n the sports world was revealed recently when Microsoft and the NBA announced a new direct-to-consumer streaming service, powered by Microsoft Azure designed to ‘redefine and personalise the fan experience’. It promises next-generation, personalised game broadcasts, enhanced live and on-demand streaming, more data and analysis than ever, an integrated social and gaming element, as well as giving fans the opportunity to buy tickets and merchandise and earn loyalty points.
Lockdown is driving the continuing unbundling of premium content, a new focus on creating communities around passions and the creation of new direct to consumer platforms from rights-holders. When we tentatively emerge from the lockdown, the return of live sport will be one of the biggest signals of life returning to normal but the ‘new normal’ for sport will be very different to the old one.