The Next Normal for Sports

Written by on April 22, 2020

The current global hiatus in most live sport is set to usher in a period of innovation that could well become the next normal for sports and it’s many fans.

With Stadiums and sports fields currently standing empty and with the likes of ESPN ratings down almost 60% (YoY), there has been a small silver lining around our dark sports void, namely egaming and social media. It is being reported that streaming is up over 4000% (YoY) while from the increase in Twitter usage, stats show the biggest growth on the platform coming from sports and entertainment. The rise in fantasy sport has also been unprecedented, from Fantasy Football we now have the likes of Fantasy Baseball, Fantasy Cricket and even Fantasy Taekwondo. In essence, there has been a massive shift to digital and the big question is, what will this move mean for sports as it moves into a Next Normal?

One of the big issues at the moment concerns Rights, in particular the (with-holding of ) payment of broadcast rights for sports that is not happening. I believe the Rights Value Proposition as it currently exists, will change for the following reasons;

  • Athletes have spent the last number of weeks engaging more with fans than ever before, fans will have become accustomed to this interaction and we all know what they say about changing a habit in just 21 days – I don’t see the fans wanting this to change any time soon.
  • The move to digital, particularly the digital innovation that we are seeing/still yet to see, has and will give a lot more remote fans the opportunity to get involved and engage with sports and as well as their favourite athletes eg. #ToiletRollChallenge / #BottleChallenge / #HandstandDressing / FIFA eNations Cup etc…
  • The demand for new content, from both fans and brands, has seen an increase in the rebroadcasting of classic games along with insights from the athletes involved, the creation of new and unique training videos, the issuing of sports challenges and the airing of sports documentaries. In many instances this has offered the fan a deeper insight into the lives of teams/athletes as is the example of “Last Dance” on ESPN, which has pulled more than six million viewers at the time of writing.
  • The loss of advertising revenue, as much as this has been disastrous for the sports industry, has forced brands to innovate in ways not previously considered, just look at the example of the sports betting industry which has now upped it’s exposure in the eGaming space and have also now incorporated events like Poker and Darts into their betting mix to not only keep the “addicts” stimulated but to also remain relevant.
  • Add to this the fact that the new rights cycles in the US are about to commence and with the backdrop of the many rights payment suspensions around the world along with the various rebate plans (extended terms and catch-up payments) in discussion, expect big changes from both rights owners and rights holders alike. The learning’s from the US market will surely ripple across the world.
  • Finally, we have the concertina effect that is pretty much a certainty for many sports once events (with or without fans) are given the green light to proceed. Fans, who have had zero access to live sport, are expected to arrive at stadia/events in droves in an attempt to satisfy their live sports cravings. As much as this will be a much needed cash injection for the sports industry, it poses some tricky logistical issues for sports like Boxing and MMA who are reliant on large arenas/stadia to showcase, what are expected to be, never before seen fight cards. These sports would want to “recover” lost revenues – not just for themselves but for the athletes – and with the making up of lost events, we should see bumper back-to-back sports spectacles for the last two quarters of 2020.

Looking ahead at what the Next Normal for Sports could look like, the new habits formed over the last few weeks should see a mix of the following;

  • Initially, we should see a ramp-up of sports that allow for social distancing such as eSports, Golf, Tennis and certain forms of Motor-racing. Global travel may also be impacted for quite some time so this will put pressure on many sports such as F1, Rugby and Football to revise international schedules.
  • Expect a New Fan Experience: The increased use of technology may, in the long-run, see fewer fans in the stadiums and at events. It will however force sports to reimagine the fan experience through its content presentation, as was recently witnessed at WWE with the closer shots and tighter angles – meant to hide the fact that there were no spectators. Fan meet-&-greets will also take some time to find a next normal for athlete interaction as I don’t see Floyd Mayweather’s current option having any degree of sustainability.
  • More learnings will come out of the eGaming world that will impact on live sports, much like the VAR system used in football.
  • New content opportunities for rights owners, rights holders, athletes as well as fans will become far more innovative and progressive, so expect a growth in OTT sports offerings as all these stakeholders look to capitalise on the learnings from this global pandemic.
  • There will also be a greater power shift from the brands/promoters towards the athletes. Those athletes that have taken the time to leverage off of their appeal/popularity/notoriety have seen the power that they possess, what remains to be seen is if they rise to the occasion.

The next few months should see the proverbial “changing of the guard” in the sports arena. Titles could be won or lost from the boardroom, teams could be relegated or promoted as a means of saving seasons but one thing is for sure, I f*cking miss my sport! Please come back……..

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