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COVID-19: Tracing a Pandemic Through Sport

June 24, 2020
By Nicholas Palmer-brown

A highly infectious virus with global pandemic status doesn’t exactly lend itself to playing, viewing or hosting sport. Many sports necessitate extremely close contact, on and, of similar business and cultural importance, off the pitch.

Whether you’re in a rugby scrum or scrumming to get drinks at half time, social distancing and sport are at best, majorly inconvenient – at worst, totally incompatible.

COVID-19’s effect on sport, set against the backdrop of decades of rampant globalisation of tournaments, events and leagues, has therefore been particularly profound. Major global sporting events postponed, and almost all major leagues have been on hold for months.

It is thus an equally tumultuous time for sports marketers, for whom the value of nimble creativity has become business-critical. Simply put, short-term investment in creative resources can be the silver bullet of delivering both immediate impact in response to COVID and long-term brand affinity and recall – think a global footwear brand’s ‘Play inside, play for the world.’

As we move further into the unknown, yet closer to a return to sports, brands and rights holders must take a closer look at how to deploy their rights. Traditional sponsorship amplification won’t help bridge the connection between fans and a sport they can’t get close to. A more nuanced and creative approach has a unique opportunity to bring passion points to the fans.

The complexity and gravity of the situation we find ourselves in has led us to trace sports marketing success stories through the pandemic. What constitutes a timely, meaningful and effective campaign can be grouped into four simple principles – providing important lessons and guardrails as we move forward.

1. Be meaningful: Support struggling organisations with genuine purpose

The financial challenges which many clubs, leagues and administrations find themselves facing present brands with a unique chance to generate a long-standing and potentially valuable affinity with fans.

Brands moved quickly to set-up grants to support communities and industry categories, support women’s football and dedicate resources and product innovation to help key workers around the world.

2. Be entertaining: Transport consumers to their happy place

While the gravity of COVID-19 cannot be overstated, it should in no way inhibit brands from providing light-hearted support to their audiences. Fans are desperate for fun and shareable content to alleviate the weight that everyday life now brings.

International governing bodies have stepped up to celebrate annual events and transport them into people’s homes, whilst partners have sought to get fans as close to the action as possible; leveraging branding rights and access to top talent – also hankering for some friendly competition.

3. Be nimble: Change is the only constant

Exploring cultural tension has always been crucial to a successful campaign. Currently, what is and isn’t feasible or acceptable is shifting on a near daily basis. As a result, the need to be flexible and react to these changes in a way that is both fast enough to retain relevance, but calculated enough so not to appear inconsiderate, is essential.

Organisers of the world’s biggest sporting and mass participation events reimagined live sporting events virtually to keep fans connected whilst others quickly pivoted and financially restructured to help save national charities.

4. Above all — Be ruthlessly creative: Data-driven, creatively charged

Capturing the audience’s attention while sport is on live-pause means the usual playbook is out the window. There is just one rule. To simply give fans something to fill the COVID-19 shaped sporting hole in their lives. The data and insights are there as the yellow brick road, waiting for those brave enough to ideate, innovate and implement.

Both brands and right holders moved ruthlessly to pull data and identify clear and present cultural tension – fans miss sport and are struggling with loneliness in isolation. This tension was met with live, socially charged moments with talent, competitive interaction and innovative product launches.