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The Power of Sport Can Move the World Even in the Dark Times

March 25, 2020

2020 was supposed to be a big year for sports. With the coming of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, and the two-year countdown to the Beijing 2022 Olympic Winter Games, the mass sports market in Asia was developing at a particularly rapid pace. But the outbreak of COVID-19 delivered a hard blow to this expanding market, and that hit is now being felt around the world as the global sports industry experiences firsthand the impact of the virus.

However, as China becomes the first to shift to the recovery phase, we see that COVID-19 has also propelled the local sports industry to new levels of innovation, cultivating what may be a new era in sport and signaling what could come next for the rest of the world.

While there is much that remains unknown about whether China’s experience with the novel coronavirus will be replicated in other countries, there are also good learnings that will be universal and inspiring to sports business leaders and marketers today.

1. Home fitness as the new lifestyle in response to “social distancing”

In the midst of China’s months-long quarantine, home fitness has become a social phenomenon. Fitness applications and online fitness content platforms grew incrementally. The popular social platform Sina Weibo released a number of social topics such as “home fitness plan” and “home fitness sports award”, encouraging people to do sports with their families and share home sport videos. Led by Olympic champions, celebrities and fitness enthusiasts, the campaign created a trend in China and these topics achieved a total reach of more than 2 billion on Weibo. Keep, a popular fitness APP, partnered with consumer brands to launch a livestream training course, reaching a cumulative audience of more than 50 million people.

We also saw home fitness break through to the front lines of the COVID-19 response, as patients and medical staff in temporary hospitals embraced Chinese ‘square dancing,’ a popular new exercise promoting health in a relaxed and fun environment, under safe protection.

2. An explosion of online sports content consumption

Also due to the quarantine, both the number of daily active internet users and average time spent daily online reached record highs. Inspired by this increase in online consumption, traditional sports enterprises in China have actively embraced digital solutions to reach their audiences. As a result, China has seen an uptick in online sports engagement and spend – both by the younger generation and the super-aging population.

PP Sports released online fitness programs sharing content from online and offline fitness institutions, supporting athletes and merchants with home fitness livestreaming. Sina Sports focused on fans engagement, inviting popular players from its brand competition 3×3 Golden League to broadcast online. Sina Sports also joined hundreds of ski resorts, brands and opinion leaders to produce promotional content related to winter sports and the Beijing 2022 Games.

E-sports also grew significantly in popularity during this time, lighting a spark across the online sports and entertainment industry resulting in increases in video streaming, online gaming and in-game spending. Console game sales also surged, despite manufacturing and delivery limitations.

3. Sporting goods and apparel brands turn to “Social Commerce”

To make up for losses in bricks-and-mortar sales, sporting goods and apparel retailers have recalibrated their efforts around a retail strategy that digitizes their marketing operations around e-commerce solutions. In addition to focusing on efforts to boost sales via traditional e-commerce channels like Alibaba-owned Taobao Live, sports retailers are stepping up their game within social media livestreams, turning them into opportunities for e-commerce traffic and sales.

This is supported by innovations from social media platforms. For example, Tencent launched a live audio and video broadcasting tool for WeChat Official Account (OA), leveraging its WeChat fanbases, to drive e-commerce sales. Without having to download the App, consumers can just click the mini-program in the brand’s official WeChat OA to push subscription and watch. ByteDance’s Douyin (known as TikTok globally) launched the “Cloud Shopping” project, providing one billion live streaming views from the platform and zero cost for brands to insert its shopping cart function. The e-commerce feature in the app also allows users to participate in the challenge and buy products related to sponsored brands.

Among the new users of these social e-commerce apps, the proportion of the middle-aged and elderly increased the most and users from lower-tier cities also expanded greatly.

The impact of COVID-19 on the global sports industry as a whole is as yet unknown, but this crisis also puts forward a new direction for sports brands and business, ultimately spurring the sports economy to innovate further and faster.

A month ago, FleishmanHillard client TOKYO SKYTREE sent good vibes to Wuhan, China and the Chinese people via a special lighting display from the world’s highest broadcasting tower, with the blue light symbolizing “hope the epidemic will end soon” and the red light to cheer for China. People in China appreciate this friendship with Japan. I hope to pass on this blessing and support.

Writing this from home and sending some positive vibes #StayInspired.