Opinion

COVID-19 has changed everything for sports sponsorship. But the NRL is back, and I’m optimistic

A global pandemic ground live sports to a halt, and it's been tough for the industry. 12 to 18 months' of recovery still lies ahead. But there's opportunity amongst the chaos, says OMD Create's Aaron Miller.

About a week into the impact of COVID-19, I was on a call with a long-term client peering into our crystal ball, exhausted. The pressure of the unknown, the shifting narrative and the race for a solution drove what felt like constant scenario planning. It was intense, unlike anything I have ever experienced in my career. A Facebook meme doing the rounds at the time truly summed up the feelings of many: ‘What a year this week has been’.

A couple of months on – and with the NRL returning tonight – a lot has happened in the world of sports and sports sponsorships. We have planned for the worst, reviewed contracts and budgets, had difficult conversations with clients and partners, scenario planned more times than I care to count, and all the while tried to stay positive and find opportunity amongst the chaos.

COVID-19 has highlighted existing fragilities, which has forced experimentation and turbo-charged underlying industry trends. The result is a likely further 12 to 18 months of disruption before we settle into the new norm of sport and sponsorships.

Marble racing has been something we’ve seen in the absence of live sport

When regulations around live sport were introduced, we were reminded of the importance of audiences in stadium. The atmosphere they bring, the cheers and jeers, the rising of fans in seats as the action races across the sideline or a goal is scored.

All of those things, in my opinion, were sorely missed in the broadcast experience at home and further amplified by the social distancing restrictions, limiting shared viewing experiences. Honestly, the footy broadcast experience felt flat, which wasn’t lost on the codes and broadcasters which have since spent time experimenting to create ‘crowd-like’ atmosphere.

I am looking forward to seeing how this plays out when footy returns to our screens, starting with the NRL tonight. No doubt it will be hotly debated amongst fans and critical in maintaining audiences.

It was interesting to see how quickly the physical and virtual signage was applied across empty stadium seating.

While this was mostly activated as a trial, using club logos and assets, this has since been identified as a potential brand advertising opportunity. At this stage, I suspect there is a frenzied debate regarding the ownership of these assets being played out and we can expect to see this space commercialised in the very near future. Maybe this experiment could provide an alternative solution to the expensive physical LED curtain that has gone missing from the new stadium build in Sydney.

Social distancing restrictions have also seen broadcasters experiment with commentary teams filming from home or other offsite locations. Whilst an off-site commentary team is not new, the very organic social feel that we saw in these initial broadcasts, and across racing since, could be an indicator for potential fan engagement into broadcast environments moving forward.

Bruce McAvaney commentating from home

It has also been interesting to see the turbo-charging of some industry trends with the explosion of ‘personality’-led content and the rapid growth of e-sports.

‘Entertainment’ has become currency, taking precedence over athletic performance and stats. Codes, clubs and athletes have long struggled to harness the opportunity of social media in building their fan bases away from the live action, highlights and scheduling.

Now, fans have become ‘remote’ fans, forcing a positive change by pushing National Sports Organisations (NSOs), teams and even athletes to explore the opportunities of social and digital connections to fans. With players at home, we have been able to see more of who they are than ever before, sometimes too much – I’m looking at you David Warner.

@davidwarner31Eating a corn off a drill 😂😂 just be very careful😢😢 ##copycat ##tiktok ##lifehacks ##fyp ##funny ##drill ##edutok♬ original sound – davidwarner31

With people spending more time at home it was no surprise to see a huge upswing in interest in e-sports. Long talked about approaches from code owners became a reality, athletes started their own gaming competitions and casual gaming audiences took notice.

So, what’s next? Here are my predictions:

More scenario planning

We are only a second wave or positive player diagnosis away from further schedule disruption. The AFL only releasing its schedule in blocks is also complicated as it is harder to plan long term.

Less budget, less games, less time on the field

Doing more with less will be the new normal.

Sponsor clutter and ‘clear space’ will be an even greater challenge

While consumer sentiment is certainly becoming more positive, brands will still need to be careful with their approach. They will need to be more sensitive and purposeful than ever. While elite sport is returning, grass roots sport is still a work in progress and many smaller businesses relying on sport may never be the same.

With seasons ending later, there will be even less time for sponsors to review and evaluate contract deliverables and results, putting pressure on planning for 2021.

Sponsor relationships will likely come under stress

Clear and aligned objectives and a positive long-term approach will be critical.

As a sports fan, I am so excited about the end of the year. Scheduling has thrown up a veritable sports buffet through to the end of October, and into November, with both footy codes’ grand finals and marquee race days leading into a three-week State of Origin period.

I am hopeful that the spirit of experimentation continues, that we get an afternoon NRL grand final, and that crowds return sooner than predicted.

There are many more twists and turns in this story before we settle into a new ‘normal’. While we can expect some further shrinking of the industry, I am hopeful that we can emerge on the other side with even stronger best practice sponsorships and an evolved approach to connect with fans.

While I have enjoyed learning the ins and outs of combat juggling and cheered on the ‘Oceanics’ in the Marblelympics (that’s marble racing), I can’t wait to sit with my family and cheer on the Eels to a premiership in 2020. Even if it is from our lounge-room, with a virtual crowd.

Aaron Miller is director of sports partnerships at OMD Create

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