Life after COVID-19: How the coronavirus outbreak will change the world of sports

April 17, 2020

Countless days of lockdown have made us realise how dependent we are on simple things that we take for granted. Technology is helping us through these tough times.

Entertainment through social media, OTT platforms and plain old TV is also becoming integral in these times, not only to pass one’s time, but also to avoid overindulging in the news. But during this lockdown, live sporting events are being missed the most by sports fans.

Sports has always been the most thrilling and engaging form of entertainment for many. Unfortunately, it was probably one of the first to be hit by the pandemic, since the suspension of most leagues was essential to maintain social distancing and control the outbreak of the virus. Right now, if it weren’t for the pandemic, we would have been rooting for our favourite IPL, EPL or NBA teams.

Nevertheless, sports broadcasters are trying to keep fans engaged by re-airing the classics, showcasing a round-up of previous matches. Some sports leagues are engaging with fans on social media, OTT platforms are promoting sports docu-series, and overall the industry is innovating continually to keep fans involved.

Here are some ways I see the industry and its stakeholders getting set for the next innings of sports in 2020.

Digital Viewership

In the last few years, sporting events have become highly accessible to fans worldwide, thanks to smartphones and high-speed internet connectivity. A lot of sports content is being consumed online/digitally.

When the pandemic situation starts improving, sports will start resuming in pockets. There is a high probability that tournaments will be organized behind-closed-doors for a few months without a live audience in stadiums. But that will not prevent fans from enjoying their favourite events live.

In India, sports viewership on television alone has grown around 90% in the last four years. Interestingly, even in the absence of any new sporting event, viewership of sports channels grew 21% as they re-telecasted India’s most historic wins in cricket, along with WWE reruns.  

And, these are just television numbers. Sports content on OTT and other platforms are also witnessing high traction for live updates, streaming of sports events, live blogs with experts, testing sports IQ with quizzes and trivia, among others. This simply indicates how sports content is consumed by fans.

Once sporting events resume, there is a possibility of sports viewership and consumption reaching an all-time high, making up for weeks of no live-action.

Content is King 

The biggest learning for the sports industry during this lockdown has been to realise the potential of digital and social media platforms to engage with fans. Sports leagues, celebrities and companies are making their presence felt on social media to avoid the ‘out of mind and out of sight’ syndrome.

Sports content platforms are coming up with live chats, blogs, highlight packages, and identifying matches that are still ongoing to live stream on their platforms. All top global leagues, including Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, National Basketball Association, National Football League, have reported the highest ever fan engagement on their social media platforms. Broadcasters and OTT platforms are promoting sports-related documentaries and series.

As per recent Nielsen report findings, all sports leagues have increased week-over-week fan engagement by 113% since mid-March. When the matches resume, the leagues will have a strong base of deeply engaged fans, that will help them bring a better fan experience throughout their events.

The match fitness 

Even after the pandemic situation improves, athletes and sportspersons might not be at their optimal fitness level to perform well in the upcoming matches. Due to the lockdown, most athletes are not likely to be able to train at high intensity and will definitely need match practice.

Some sports associations and players are trying to adapt to new formats of training. The Boxing Federation of India (BFI) has started providing online classes to Indian boxers who have qualified for the Tokyo Olympics, and India’s top-ranked table tennis player G Sathiyan is training with a robot. But match-fitness for sports like cricket and football is defined purely by on-field training which would take a little longer than other sports categories. Right after the lockdown, they will need to resume training and get back in match shape.

What lies ahead 

Sports leagues and sports broadcasters are dependent on each other from a revenue standpoint and during this pandemic, both have been equally affected. It highlights the need for both leagues and broadcasters to explore more diverse income streams and relook at the fan engagement approach.

Engagement with fans through digital mediums can be the answer. These could include live monetization models, such as fantasy sports, gamified viewership, fan commentary, statistical analysis, and so on.

Sports bring people together and that attribute of sports is missed the most in these times. The industry is facing a crisis like never before, but with the right strategy, it can emerge from this crisis stronger and more relevant than ever before.

Yannick Colaco is a guest contributor. Views expressed are personal.