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PAUL GEARY: A new normal for sport and fans

opinion

It’s amazing how quickly life’s ‘givens’ have disappeared overnight… Dinner with friends, a trip to the gym, a hug from a loved one – and weekend sport. Sport has always been one of humanity’s great unifiers – British and German soldiers even celebrated the Christmas Truce of 1914 during WWI with a football match in no-man’s land.

It’s deeply strange to not be able to harness the goodwill, energy and passion of a global sporting event at a time when the world needs it, more than ever.

‘Sport is nothing without the fans’ is more than lip service from administrators and athletes, with plenty agreeing that their seasons should only restart once it is safe for fans to flock to venues in their tens of thousands.

The return of the Springboks after their Rugby World Cup win in Japan would not have had the same effect without the thousands of fans cheering and showing their pride along the streets. How will we as South Africans rediscover our sporting soul without an echoing FNB stadium or a fan-lined 89km route at the Comrades Marathon? We will figure that out as time goes on and the current situation changes.

The unavailability of live sport under COVID-19 lockdown has seen broadcasters switch to showing legacy and classic matches, packaging events in myriad different ways. The fundamental problem is that fans have seen all this content before, and nostalgia will only take you so far in the face of high subscription fees which many see as a grudge purchase made almost solely to access their favourite live sporting events.

Some sporting codes have ventured into the esports space, but watching Lewis Hamilton compete against Ben Stokes in a virtual Grand Prix is more about the novelty value than providing a viable alternative for one of the world’s most-followed sports.

With fewer options for fans to currently engage, we believe that sports teams and codes in South Africa which have the ability to deliver their content, direct-to-consumer (DTC), will be the ones that come out of this in better shape – both financially and in terms of the vital goodwill of the fans who flock to stadia and buy merchandise. The model needs to change – and a fan-centred, owned digital platform that delivers content directly is the solution.

The excitement of the return of sport will be balanced out by the quality of the experience in a very different environment, and it’s incumbent upon the rights holders to provide one that will ensure the vital loyalty of fans. As life returns to the ‘new normal’, fans will also remember how sporting organisations and sponsors drove value during lockdown, which will have an effect on loyalty and the long-term sustainability of those sporting codes.

The first DTC movers with the best content plan and those who take ownership of both broadcast medium and the content will be best-placed to survive the pandemic. Monetising an owned channel can be done in partnership with a broadcaster with experience in the space, rather than working against them.

It's a massive ramp-up to build the infrastructure to own and produce a quality broadcast, which most sporting codes can’t afford, nor have the inclination to attempt. But those who see the long-term value in investing and partnering where they can, are the ones who will be best-placed to capitalise on the ‘new normal’. It has to be built as a partnership that the existing broadcasters see value and return, in.

Providing fans with this content is but one part of the puzzle – and without the content, the alternative is a vehicle through which real and long-term fan value can be provided. One approach for sport is to do this through membership platforms or supporters’ clubs. These clubs are a way for teams and rights holders to connect directly with fans and generate vital revenue in the process.

One Custom runs the Official Proteas Supporters’ Club (OPSC) in South Africa, under the auspices of Cricket South Africa (CSA), who administers and promotes the property of cricket in the country. That means that the ‘content’ of cricket is largely under CSA’s control, and their sponsors rely on the broadcast (by broadcast rights holders like SuperSport or SABC) of this content to maximise their exposure and ROI. This provides further ways for fans to engage with sport and their favourite sporting heroes.

For the club or rights holder, a membership platform like this is a vehicle that drives engagement and fosters loyalty with their biggest fans: it is a channel for content, a direct sales tool, a further revenue opportunity. But it’s also attention, it’s affinity and it’s direct ownership and control of that critically important fan relationship.

For the fan, membership provides a connection with a team that delivers that sense of identity and belonging – this is a big part of why people love sport, and why they can’t wait for it to return…

It’s a strategy for a new world – and one that can be applied to other supporters’ platforms, including everything from theatre and the performing arts to charitable foundations. Fans and supporters of any event or activity are its lifeblood – and a key part of the value exchange of any live event, in the ‘new normal’.

Paul Geary is director of One Custom, a customer experience and marketing intelligence agency.