When the games stopped

As the impact of the Coronavirus unfolds, we took a look at the impact it has had on sports, how fans, leagues, and players have adapted and what opportunities and challenges these provide for marketers.

March 12th will likely be considered a significant date in the history of the ncov19 pandemic. On that date, near the opening tipoff of a game between the Utah Jazz and Oklahoma City Thunder, a doctor ran onto the court and recommended stopping the game before it even started, clearing the court and the arena all together. A player had tested positive for the virus. Shortly afterward, the NBA suspended league play indefinitely. Since then the NHL, Major League Soccer, Major League Baseball and European Soccer Leagues, including the English Premier League, have followed suit. To say, “this rocked the public,” would be a fair statement, as it became a sobering moment for millions who began to realize how much the pandemic was going to affect day-to-day life.

People turn to sports for entertainment to escape and provide a spark for social connection. As sports have become big business, impacting our economy and media behaviour, brands across the globe have come to rely on sports a vital connection point to audiences. The games may have stopped for the minute, but even in these turbulent times people are adapting their behaviours to seek moments of connectivity and group experience.

We have identified three key consumer behaviour shifts:

Reliving, Replacing, and Readying

Past-oriented — Reliving old sports events and moments
The reliving of old sporting events and moments is an old past time. But now, it has reached a whole new level. For example, The Athletic (the subscription-based sports website) launched a series of ‘REBOOTED’ articles, in which they analyse moments from old Premier League seasons from 1999. Media broadcasters, such as ESPN, NBA, and CBS, are live streaming and/or broadcasting full classic games from college basketball to World Cup matches. Even athletes, like Stephen Curry and Lebron James, are reliving their highlights on social media.

Present-oriented — Replacing IRL sports with virtual sports via gaming
Consumers and athletes are also replacing real life sports with virtual sports via live streamed gaming. Lando Norris (F1 driver) broke records on streaming platform Twitch, with over 70,000 viewers and smashing F1’s all-time concurrent record, as he took part in a virtual Australian Grand Prix. NBA athletes have taken to competing against their peers and fans on various games (e.g., NBA 2K, Call of Duty) and, yes, ESPN is reporting on it. All in all, “Twitch viewership increased 10% and YouTube Gaming by 15%, both of which reflect the popularity of the livestreaming medium now that people are consuming higher volumes of entertainment from home,” says StreamElements CEO Doron Nir.

Future-oriented — Preparing for the return of live sports
The show must and will go on. Conversations around the ‘when and how’ different leagues will return are on the way. Both the NBA and the English Premier League have indicated a strong preference to finish out their seasons. Further, the NFL’s ongoing free agency provided a brie,f but major distraction as free agents signed deals (e.g., Tom Brady leaving the New England Patriots on St. Patrick’s Day of all things). As a result, conversations among fans around future games are ongoing, and both leagues and fans are desperate for the cheers to start again.

As marketers consider what all of this means for their brand, we recommend starting with an understanding of how your specific audience relates to and engages with sports. Understanding which sports your audience loves, and misses, the most and how those sports fit into their lives (as a source of escapism, socialization or inspiration) is critical.

With this a backdrop, here’s a few questions to guide how your brand can uniquely and authentically support the fans in your customer base:

· How can you tap into the feeling of nostalgia, inspiration and social connection that comes from reliving old sports memories? Social media is a vital environment for these conversations and emotions. Partners, such as ESPN and CBS, are also great for engaging with these experiences.

· How can you enable and celebrate your audience’s competitive spirit and/or that of their favourite athletes through virtual sports? Partners, such as Twitch, YouTube Gaming and Activision, are rich platforms to engage with your audience in this way.

· How can you prepare yourself for a sense of relief and joy that will come from the return of live sports? Partners like ESPN and Fox Sports will likely have strong opportunities for prepared brands and first-mover advantage will be at a premium during this time.

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