Opinion

Overheard in a Sydney bar: ‘If the feed goes down, we’re going to need to get out of here, fast!’

Optus is still suffering the aftershocks of its epic World Cup streaming PR disaster, as evidenced by something Creature's Lee Robson overheard in a Sydney bar recently.

“If the feed goes down, we’re going to need to get out of here, fast!”

Words overheard by Creature, uttered by an Optus content team sent out to capture reactions in a Sydney bar during a particularly raucous World Cup match this week.

And a sentiment that powerfully sums up what Optus have learnt the hard way since their live feed woes began: never get between fans and their sport.

On this particular night, the Optus cameraman in question only needed to obscure the screen for a few seconds as he tried to find the best vantage point for his shot. But it was enough to draw the instant and very vocal disapproval of the crowd.

Although magnified countless times over, it’s from that same place that the reaction of hundreds of thousands of Optus customers stemmed, exploding out of the insult and indignation of being denied access to a global sporting spectacle enshrined in football fans’ expectations as their God-given right to enjoy.

The resulting fallout goes beyond terms like “brand damage” or a dent in your Net Promoter Score; it has become about creating so much anger and hostility that your staff are afraid to be identified with your company by its primary target audience. Wow!

So technical glitches aside, where did it to go wrong for Optus?

Live sports viewers are fans first and customers second. Get those two the wrong way around at your peril.

As sports marketing and communications professionals, we spend all our time working to align brands and complimentary messages with sport. We’re often successful and our audiences will buy into what we’re selling. But make no mistake, we are allowed to occupy that ground only because we sit inoffensively and unobtrusively around the thing they love – their game, their team, their sport.

Never in front of, or in the way of.

Getting in between a fan and their sport is infinitely worse than not being involved with sport in the first place. Don’t believe me? Walk into a sports bar next time there’s any big game on, pull the TV power socket out of the wall and see how long you last.

That’s effectively what Optus did on the grandest of scales, and it’ll be a while before the examination reveals just how badly it’s been beaten up by the experience. My guess is it’ll be walking with a limp for a very long time to come.

With the damage done, the focus has moved swiftly onto the healing process within the confines of the World Cup window that remains. And to their great credit, by apologising, offering free access and refunds and passing the broadcasting baton over to SBS, Optus very quickly realised they were less so in a battle for credibility, and more in a retreat for survival as trusted rights-holders.

When it comes to the journey ahead, the sports marketer in me says it’s about showing humility and affinity with the legions of fans Optus has wronged, and that’s certainly part of the path to redemption. But first and foremost, it’s about delivering the product that was originally promised. Until Optus can assure World Cup fans they’re able to do that, I would keep my marketing head down and first earn the right to reopen a dialogue with the fans.

How long might Optus be wearing the scars of this most public of failures? Ask a UK-based Liverpool FC fan when the last time they bought The Sun newspaper was. The answer they’ll give you is nearly 30 years ago on 19th April 1989 – the day The Sun published a scandalous and now discredited story about Liverpool fans’ actions at the time of the Hillsborough disaster.

Those Liverpool fans will never forget, they will never forgive and they will never buy The Sun again.

That extreme example transcends sport, but it’s a stark reminder to any brand looking to cosy up to sports fans, that no matter what positivity and warmth you engender from them through acts they are receptive to, the negative sentiment you can expect to receive will be amplified 100 times over if you fail to live up to your responsibility.

In the eyes of fans, rights holders don’t own sport, they serve it. And Optus is now facing a very steep uphill battle to convince sports fans they are worthy guardians of the responsibility they sought to be entrusted with.

Lee Robson is managing director, Creature.

Discuss the Optus streaming disaster and more at next week’s Mumbrella Sports Marketing Summit. Get your tickets now.

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