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6 minute read

A sporting fightback against COVID-19 and beyond

Can we survive months without live sport? Short answer is yes, we can. We’ll survive and come out the other side and still be strong fans of the sports we follow, but sport– and life – will look very different post- COVID-19.

Sport has always been a gamechanger with the agility and speed to innovate and acclimate to new conditions, as demonstrated by enshrined traditions and long history. As a socio-cultural institution, it reflects our values and shared ideals. And right now, sport is very visible and visceral platform of social and economic change, moving the goal posts of how society will adapt to the COVID-19 pandemic and prepare for future global events of this scale. The sports sector, like many other sectors, is being forced to evolve rapidly to a new economic structure on the other side of COVID19. The new face of sport will include cost reductions in professional sports, possibly revised ownership and investment and rapid innovation to develop new growth opportunities and ensure contactless experiences.

We know sport is the big unifier and leveller in society and plays an important economic, social and cultural role. With every major sporting league on the global schedule on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic, there is limited live sport around the world to follow for the foreseeable future, which has created a massive vacuum in our lives. Many tragic sports fans (myself included) prior to the reinvention of some professional competitions, were resorting to debating “best of” highlights, team picks and grand finals online in an attempt to fill this huge void. The recent re-launch of some professional sports seasons and community sports to very limited or non-existent stadia crowds has been well received and signals a new need for sport to ensure pandemicfriendly, virtual experiences and contactless stadia ticketing and catering are provided. 

The recent re-launch of some professional sports seasons and community sports to very limited or nonexistent stadia crowds has been well received and signals a new need for sport to ensure pandemic-friendly, virtual experiences and contactless stadia ticketing and catering are provided.

Championing Social and Mental Challenges

And that’s a major concern given the role sport plays in promoting positivity and bringing people together in times of turmoil. From soldiers finding solidarity playing sport during World War I and II, to the 1995 Rugby World Cup which South Africa hosted and won, uniting the nation at the end of the apartheid era and, more recently in Detroit, USA, where new stadiums brought hope to the city after the economic downturn due to the decline of the automobile manufacturing industry, history has demonstrated how sport is the heartbeat of countries and cities. In India, the Isha Foundation uses community sport to unite rural communities and eliminate castebased inequality. The growing mental health issues associated with COVID- induced economic downturn can be ameliorated to an extent by community sport and the tribal belonging affiliated with professional sports. Sport, in essence is a social connector that drives community wellbeing and resilience, particularly during tough times.

Sport and athletes have always been important role models and right now, athletes and sport brands are using their social media profiles and personal platforms to communicate critical messages around COVID-19.

NBA and EPL athletes and brands stepped up quickly, using their online clout to deliver key messages and fundraise for charities. Iconic sports celebrities and clubs have addressed issues such as social distancing and isolation as well as the aggression and fear that sparked the panicbuying frenzy. Ex-rugby league great in Australia, Johnathan Thurston used his influential platform to encourage people to protect our nation’s health by highlighting concerns about the vulnerability of Australia’s indigenous communities and is now working to keep indigenous kids studying during school closure in remote communities.

More recently, athletes around the world have rallied around the #BlackLivesMatter social justice cause, demonstrating the evolved and evolving roles that athletes play in a world where sport is a universal language and powerful platform for social change.

Transformations in Sports

In terms of fan engagement, the lack of access to live sport is the biggest marketing problem sport has ever faced. Fans are pivotal players in the business of sport – they are the audiences that underpin broadcast rights and sponsorship valuations, and provide the atmosphere in live attendance. When players recently experienced playing in empty stadiums, it was an odd arena, for both the home audience and the players. It’s a huge problem to solve, but sport is pivoting to create innovative social media content to fill the void and adopt new technologies to engage a global audience. Esports, fantasy sports and branded content are emerging as winners for engagement, in addition to complimenting the live spectacle of sport in future, as a form of hedging in the sport business model that must adjust to inevitable pandemic, security or natural disaster disruption in the future.

Traditional sport has also diversified into esports, and with the cancellation of live sport, these video game competitions are more relevant than ever. The uncertainty of watching live sport is something everyone enjoys, and the excitement of competitive gaming replicates many of these attributes with those of traditional sport, as showcased by Formula One’s morphing into e-racing. Many athletes are now also asking fans to join them in playing these online games.

Managing Social Media

Social media is polarising and quite negative in many ways, but I’d argue that sport has the ability to bring people together online in a positive way. With the insatiable demand for online content, athletes and sporting

codes are sharing sporting highlights, memes and authentic off-field interviews with key players, sponsors and clubs via TikTok, Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, and fans are very receptive to this organic content and access. On TikTok especially, athletes are sharing their off-field personalities in an authentic way, which is particularly attractive for the next generation of sport consumers.

Healthy Body Healthy Nation

One of the key roles of sport has always been to ensure participation in activity, effectively driving a healthier and socially connected economy. During this lockdown phase, the fitness and mental health of professional players, sport employees and the wider community is of concern, and sport has a powerful ability to deliver messaging in a positive way. Many athletes are doing online training programs and encouraging everyone to participate in sport, testament to the positive role sport can play in times of uncertainty.They can also play a role in supporting rising mental health in our communities in the face of economic downturn through their gravitis and many are. This is the real power of sport. And this won’t change.

Future of Sports

Every sector will change after the COVID-19 crisis and sport is no exception. We know the structure of sport and competition will look different, and now is the time to look at how we adapt and change to survive. The relationship between fans and sport might evolve, to be even closer than before. Sports are grateful for the support pre- COVID19, but will be more so than ever post, with many supporters offering immediate re-deployment to sports staff and sticking as sponsors through the crisis. In many professional codes, staff and players have sacrificed their freedom to bunker down in isolated hubs across the nation, in efforts to roll out a full season, against all odds, effectively saving some sports. For the fans, sports have been revealed as vulnerable, not invincible as previously perceived, and this will bring them closer, as we all want sport to survive.

Sarah Kelly is an associate professor (law and marketing) University of Queensland, Deputy Chair of the Brisbane Lions AFL Football Club and Tourism and Events Queensland and board member Institute for Australia India Engagement. She is a global expert on sports marketing and law and influences national policy and practice in these fields.

Dr Sarah Kelly