Digital engagement has long been the focus of the sports industry and throughout the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, sports properties’ efforts to grow into this sector have grown substantially, stemming out of the need to engage with fans in a period of unprecedented disruption.
Forced behind closed doors, many events took place in empty venues without the captivated audiences that constitute the very lifeblood of sports. The commercial impact was seen in all areas, in particular for sports properties, which saw revenues massively contract and for brands that were unable to activate expensive sponsorship assets.
Maximising digital engagement has become paramount to weathering the COVID-19 storm and is viewed as key to overcoming future disruption as well. According to Euromonitor’s 2021 Voice of the Industry: Digital Survey, 70% of industry professionals (not specific to sports) said they accelerated some technology-related investments due to COVID-19 (see note below).
Looking beyond the pandemic, understanding how digital engagement can be effectively leveraged is key to remaining relevant and resilient in tomorrow’s sports industry.
What does digital fan engagement look like?
There are many platforms and channels from which properties can connect with fans online, each constituting a key relevance within a broader approach to digital engagement. Social media plays a pivotal role in reaching fans online, while proprietary apps and emerging technologies consistently offered engagement solutions during the pandemic.
Growing followership on social media
Sports properties have been investing in content creation throughout the pandemic. Keen to create deeper, more authentic connection with fans, many have sought to use platforms like Instagram and increasingly TikTok to stay front of mind with fans through the disruption.
Over the last year Euromonitor’s League Index illustrates how top leagues have focused on growing their social media followership, this perhaps best illustrated by Ligue 1 in France (one of those most impacted by the pandemic) which was able to grow its overall digital footprint by an impressive 17%.
|League||Country||EMI League Index Rank||Digital Footprint Growth|
|Premier League||United Kingdom||2||15%|
|National Basketball Association||USA||3||11%|
|National Football League||USA||1||7%|
|Major League Soccer||USA||9||3%|
|Major League Baseball||USA||5||3%|
|National Hockey League||USA||4||2%|
Source: Euromonitor’s League Index, 2021
Note: Digital footprint is the total followership across all Social Media platform (Apr-20 – Apr-21)
Other avenues for digital engagement
There are an increasing number of avenues available to sports properties to engage their fans digitally, developed around different technologies. These include, but aren’t limited to:
• Proprietary apps: Apps have enabled teams and leagues to move existing services, such as merchandising or ticketing, into consolidated digital packages and have been key to engaging fans through initiatives such as personalised loyalty programs. These apps are increasingly incorporating tokens within the offer (virtual coins used to purchase goods or services) and are seen as another tool that is helping to win not just attention but also monetising these online fanbases.
• E-Sports: The rise of professional e-sports has been on the radar of top teams and leagues prior to the pandemic, viewed as a way to engage and grow the fanbase while also increasing brand exposure for sponsors. Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) has been at the forefront of e-sports with a presence in five different divisions and with a clear focus on videogames that are popular in China, such as Dota 2 and Talon. This is reflected in PSG e-sports team’s roster of sponsors, which boasts a strong Chinese contingent, such as China CITIC Bank, Douyu TV, and HLA Jeans, among others.
• Virtual/Augmented Reality: These technologies allow fans to have a more immersive sport experience, whether at home or at the venue, with sponsoring brands often playing a key role in bringing about VR/AR activations. Euromonitor’s 2021 Voice of the Industry: Digital Survey highlights that about a third of respondents expect brand engagement to benefit the most from the rise of AR/VR technologies in the near term.
The golden thread tying all of these fragmented platforms and channels together is the quest for sports teams and leagues to better, or perhaps more fully, understand the fan. Greater ownership of fan data enables sports properties to segment fans very precisely, allowing them to build more comprehensive data and insights.
These constitute today’s most valuable indicators not just for sport properties, but for sponsors too, translating into better targeting for advertisement purposes and better return on investment. The digital fan experience improves in parallel, as sports properties continue to use data to tailor their engagement strategies, making them more personalised and authentic, helping to drive positive sentiment with existing fans and promising to unlock new fans as well.
To do that, a key factor is how efficiently properties compile the underlying data and translate data into actionable insights and innovative fan engagement strategies. Whether through social media, proprietary apps, esports, or AR/VR, properties can utilise this data to mitigate short term turbulence brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic whilst implementing a long-term strategy that seeks to understand, nurture and grow deeper and more authentic relationships with fans.
Note: Euromonitor’s 2021 Voice of the Industry: Digital Survey asks industry professionals about planned technology investment and the perceived impact of technology on commerce development.