Sport on hiatus: How media minds are adjusting to their new virtual reality

Sport’s indefinite hiatus has forced media executives across the industry to improvise and rethink their approach to content. With no live sport to offer, the current suspension in play presents an opportunity to explore creative ways of driving digital fan engagement.

Trust LeBron James to capture the prevailing mood.

Now that the coronavirus pandemic has wiped the sporting calendar clean, the withdrawal symptoms are evidently setting in, leaving fans, athletes, the media and just about everyone with a dependency on sport to pine for its return.

When that might be, nobody can be sure. Like the spread of Covid-19 itself, there is no telling when this unexpected and unprecedented hiatus will end, nor is it possible to accurately compute the full extent of its impact. What is clear is that everything which constitutes sport’s traditional business has been upended as never before.

Postponements and cancellations have come thick and fast. No live events means no ticketing revenue and hospitality income, while important questions hang over existing sponsorship contracts and broadcasting deals. Even the most optimistic of experts are proclaiming that, when all is said and done, the business of sport could look quite different than it did before the virus outbreak took hold.

But that is all speculation. For now, sports rights holders and media organisations across the globe can do little else but hunker down and get creative to stay relevant and sate the appetites of housebound, content-starved fans. Behind the scenes, too, industry consultants of a digital bent are mobilising to help rights holders navigate these unchartered waters. Many have never been busier, their expertise, services and ideas suddenly in high demand. 

One initiative spawned from the current dearth of live action is ‘SportHiatus’, an idea dreamt up by Carlo de Marchis, the group chief evangelist at Deltatre, a Turin-based data and streaming technology company which powers digital products and experiences for dozens of top rights holders, including the likes of the National Football League (NFL), Fifa, Uefa, the Olympic Games, BT Sport, and the ATP’s Tennis TV.

According to its creator, SportHiatus is ‘an informal initiative amongst peers in the sports industry to see if we can contribute with some creative ideas to fill the gap in this weird moment’. It started, he says, with a single question: with no live sport to offer, ‘what can we feed fans with now?’

“The response from clients has been really good,” says de Marchis, who is inviting industry executives to share their ideas and experiences on his personal blog. “We didn’t design it as a marketing thing – it was really authentic. Honestly, we’re busier than ever, talking to a lot of clients, trying to understand how we can contribute.

“We see it as an opportunity to support our clients when the scenario changes. Honestly, I don’t think it’s a huge change [for Deltatre] because we’re already doing everything in digital – we’re doing OTT, we’re doing a lot of direct-to-consumer. It’s more things that we were trying to put to market with clients.

“We’re not trying to exploit this situation at all. Maybe it’s a lucky situation, but it makes sense: if you have a good relationship with fans now, you’re in a better position; if you have your digital engagement machine/engine in place, you’re in a better position.”

While every organisation in sport will be feeling the effects of Covid-19, de Marchis believes the current hiatus – or what the Italian calls “a short hiccup, hopefully” – will only be fuelling the desire for sports content of any kind. “It’s almost religious,” he says. “We see it more now than when we are in the full season.”

Even marble racing has had its moment, yet the evident hunger for content does not necessarily translate into consumption, particularly in a sporting environment that values the premium live product above all else. According to a recent survey published by TV Time, 84 per cent of US viewers are intending on increasing their TV consumption while they stay home or self-isolate, but the same study found that only nine per cent would choose to watch ‘sports-related’ content during the absence of live sport. 

Based on the evidence of de Marchis' early conversations with clients and other people in sports media, organisations who are able 'to quickly adapt will dominate the conversation with fans' during the hiatus. It is little wonder, then, that executives are being encouraged to use this current lull in proceedings to rethink their content strategies.

Sport’s continued shift away from traditional broadcast models has fuelled the recent and rapid growth seen in the over-the-top (OTT) sector, and a host of forward-thinking rights holders have already launched owned and operated, direct-to-consumer (DTC) services through which to distribute content. But the ongoing hiatus could yet focus a few more minds on the benefits of investing in digital experiences that engage fans directly when live events are in short supply.

“I think there will be an acceleration of anything that is direct to fans, digital, the importance of not only the live, but everything else – it’s a silver lining,” predicts de Marchis. “We always have these moments where there is no live sport. For the NFL, it’s huge; for the Olympics, it’s very big.

“Everybody who has not invested in what we, I think collectively, thought was the way to go, are a bit behind now. We’re lucky that most of our clients are quite advanced, but also it’s a new scenario. What is very good about this initiative is it’s very useful for us to learn their needs. It’s B2B2C, for us: we need to convince our clients that this is a good idea, but then together we need to convince the fans that it’s something they should adopt.”

In response to the challenge set before them, a growing number of rights holders and media organisations have removed paywalls or taken to offering their premium services at discounted rates, while many are doubling down on video-on-demand (VOD) and archive content, raiding their expansive libraries to present fans with classic matches and historical moments.

Last week, fans were given complimentary access to NBA League Pass and NFL Game Pass, two premium streaming products that have until now been offered to out-of-market and international audiences on a subscription basis. Fifa, world soccer’s governing body, has taken to showing iconic World Cup matches via its own channels and opening its archive to its broadcast partners, such as the BBC in the UK and NOS in the Netherlands. The Deltatre-powered Tennis TV is airing classic action featuring past greats like Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, while the Olympic Channel has set up a dedicated channel to air opening and closing ceremonies from Olympic Games held during the past 30 years.

Elsewhere, broadcast executives are scrambling to plug gaping holes in programme schedules. US network ESPN has upped its news and original programming and is exploring options to re-air classic games, while it is also bringing back its ESPN8 ‘The Ocho’ novelty channel and showing its acclaimed 30 for 30 documentaries on its ESPN+ OTT service. DAZN, the sports streaming company often likened to Netflix, has altered its user interface, replacing a la carte live sports menus, which normally sit at the forefront of its offering, with catalogue programming.

Many other rights holders, including Uefa, cricket's ICC and the World Surf League (WSL), are leaning on archival content in the same way, but de Marchis sees an opportunity to go one step further, perhaps by incorporating new commentary, ‘watch together’ functionality or data visualisations. Then there is the power of social media to drive engagement and interactions around that content. 

Inevitably, in-house media teams at leagues and clubs across all sports have been quick to harness the immediacy, flexibility and interactive nature of social platforms to improvise and experiment with things like polls and games. Out-of-work athletes are also getting in on the act, creating workout videos, tutorials and other lifestyle-focused content for distribution across their personal accounts and those of their employers.

But it is esports and virtual gaming that present perhaps the clearest opportunity to fill the void and feed the appetites of social-distancing fans. Last weekend, Formula One replaced its real-life Bahrain Grand Prix with a virtual race featuring drivers, sports stars and gamers, airing coverage on YouTube and Twitch. Nascar, in partnership with iRacing, has done something similar. In soccer, tournaments based on the popular FIFA title, such as those run by Spain’s La Liga and English side Leyton Orient, have gained widespread traction. In the US, too, some major league franchises and media outlets are creating video game simulations of previously scheduled fixtures.

“I think esports is a natural supplement in this moment,” notes de Marchis. “Obviously it’s not a full replacement, but the challenge is how you bring esports to sports fans. How can we make that relevant and get the normal sports fans to follow?

“How can we transition this type of content, which has a wide audience but is very specific, to the people that we’re trying to reach? Because, in the end, we’re trying to reach people who have a bit less content to enjoy, right. They are shouting, ‘here we are now, entertain us!’”

At some point, however, normal order – or some semblance of it – will need to be restored. Clubs and leagues will have seasons to finish and organisers will need to get back to running live events. Sponsors will resume on-site activations, broadcasters will restart full-scale productions. Fans will be prompted to reactivate paused subscriptions and invited to enjoy the live action once again.

Until then, though, the need to maintain agility and creativity in the moment must be balanced with the long-term view, says de Marchis. For operators across the digital sports landscape, the best approach during this hiatus will be to entertain fans by showcasing a compelling content experience and bringing new ideas to market, and to learn valuable lessons by monitoring user behaviour and analysing engagement data.

Forging deeper, more direct fan relationships will be key, and should pay off in the long run. Indeed, any attempts to make a quick buck are ill-advised.

“I think it’s important that you have absolute discipline in giving the right message,” says de Marchis. “You need to be authentic and honest. If you’re exploiting this, I don’t think you have a future after this.

“You need to understand, you’re investing in the future…and this will create loyalty. It’s clearly long-term. I’m not sure how much it will generate revenue in the future, but I think it’s the right thing to do – and very often the right thing to do pays.”


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