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Behind the Curtain: How Teams Engaged Fans in a Postponed Season

It’s been a long time coming, but finally, sports are back. It’s being played in empty stadiums, arenas and bubbles, but we can cheer on our teams again.

For a while there, it felt like watching live sports was a foregone conclusion. Sports fans were missing their go-to form of entertainment, and frankly, the uncertainty of saving, starting, or concluding a 2020 season was causing a fair bit of anxiety. On the other side, leagues and programmers were also feeling the pressure to feed the appetites of fans that need to feel connected to their teams and athletes. While the first quarter of this year seemed like the end of the world, it instead offered brands the perfect opportunity to forge deeper relationships with their fans, by reminding them that there’s more to sports than what you see on the field.

It’s About the Culture of Sports

Ask any sports fan, regardless of what they follow, and they’ll tell you that sports is about more than the competition. Fans follow teams and matches because they’re drawn to the stories and the culture that surrounds the sport. But that’s not the only thing that engages fans. Sports is also aspirational. Whether it’s professional or amateur sports, fans are drawn to the ways that teams and players embody tenacity and drive. They overcome odds, erase deficits, play through injuries, and offer inspirational feats of athleticism. Watching sports connects us with our potential for greatness and our desire to exceed our limits.

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There’s also that sense of community and connection that we’ve touched on in previous blogs. Fans love to share their support with family, friends and other fans. The love of a team connects people to their communities and provides them with a sense of belonging. Sports fans tune in specifically to see these epic stories that play out on the pitch, the field, or in the rink in real time. Not only is it about being captivated by the potential that you’ll see a game-winning moment or history being made, it’s also about the collective experience.

It’s about legacy.

 

It’s More Than Just Live Sports

Over the past 5-6 months, it’s obvious that fans have been struggling without sports. While it’s no surprise that fans love having a window into the lives of their favourite athletes off the field via social media, there’s an appetite for more.

Some will take anything and everything even tangentially related to their favourite sport. For example, in the US, fans starving for any update on the state of the NFL turned to the NFL Draft in record numbers. Over 15.6 million viewers across ESPN, ABC & NFL Network tuned in; an increase of 37% over the previous year. While the selection of the superstars of tomorrow is fascinating for die-hard fans, it also had a secondary appeal to sports fans; a look into the homes of team executives, coaches and players. According to CNBC, this year's draft was like a "combination of football and HGTV." Offering a glimpse into the lives of their sports idols, is exactly the right strategy for keeping fans engaged with their teams, when they weren’t even playing.

But, it’s not as simple as stating “there was nothing else to watch, so desperate fans tuned in just because.” There’s more to the story. Fans are invested in the journey behind what makes their teams tick and they want more than just watching a game unfold in real-time. They wanted the whole story, and this shutdown time was the best way to introduce fans to a new way of getting engaged.

Thankfully, some organizations delivered, and it brought to light some successful tactics that can, and should, be used moving forward in conjunction with an active season to show fans what’s behind the curtain

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1) Inspire Fans With Some of the Legendary Historical Matchups:

In the off season, or in the lesser-viewed times of the late night/early morning time slots, sports networks tend to show reruns of games that have been played during the current season, or some of the better ones within the past decade. Most fans, however, don’t really care. They remember watching these games live, they know the outcomes, and there really aren’t any stakes involved. The familiarity with the content makes it boring.

What fans would love to see are some of the most legendary sporting events of all time; great Olympic performances, iconic underdog victories or moments of personal achievement. Something that might be of value could be finding an iconic event and reaching out to the athletes who participated in it, and athletes who were inspired by it, and get a running commentary going. All done from the comfort of their own homes.

While the logistics behind something like this could be problematic due to complex licensing agreements between leagues and networks, this past March through April the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, and rival Canadian broadcasters Sportsnet and TSN worked together to rebroadcast the 2019 Playoff run, with additional commentary, with current Raptors offering their recollections via social media. While the re-run ratings didn’t meet the same numbers as the original run, this was exactly what NBA fans were hungry for this past spring.

2) Take Things Virtually:

Going back to the example of the successful 2020 NFL Draft, everything was done virtually. The entire process was conducted via virtual war rooms with 600 camera feeds from the homes of the NFL Commissioner, prospects, head coaches, general managers, fans and college coaches, among others. It was in the interests of safety, but also offered fans a new avenue of exploration and engagement.

Others have taken their athletic performances to a virtual space, where possible. For this year’s BMW Invitational European Tour, 50 athletes partnered with TrackMan Virtual Golf to compete against each other from the comfort of their homes, and against a virtual backdrop of some of the world’s best golf courses. They also invited fans to participate from home to see how their skills stacked up against the pros.

While not everyone has access to VR and eSports technology, most have a gaming console, mobile phone, or a computer. Many teams and athletes from the NHL, the AHL, motocross, Formula E, and NASCAR took their skills online during the hiatus, and invited fans to watch along via Twitch, or play against them. Others took to social media to offer trivia and behind the scenes looks at a day in the life of a player. There’s a lot that can be done remotely, to engage fans who are waiting at home for the season to start.

3) Remind Fans of What Inspired Them As Kids:

Supporting a team is often a multi-generational thing. We started watching with our parents, siblings and friends growing up. Our attachment to specific sports and loyalty to specific teams comes out of those experiences. Whether it’s within the league, the team itself or within our homes and communities, sports have history. So why not lean into this? Building out long form content and nostalgic posts based around dynasties and crucial games is a no-brainer.

The best example of this is Netflix and ESPN Films’ The Last Dance. Announced in May 2018, this 10-part documentary was meant to launch in June 2020. With the impending shutdown of live sports, ESPN and Netflix pushed up the premiere to April, with fantastic results. Averaging 6.709 million viewers, it was exactly the kind of content that kept fans thinking about basketball and was the largest audience for an original program on the network. Michael Jordan is the undisputed greatest NBA player of all time, and a glimpse into the end of his and the Bull’s dynasty was irresistible. Other ESPN programs such as 30 for 30 serve the same purpose of giving fans the story behind the story.

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This is one example of what worked, and the precedent set by ESPN leads into other potential opportunities for in-depth content that can play on key sporting moments from the past 5 decades, such as the 1992 Dream Team at the Olympics or the 1972 Summit Series, for example. And it doesn’t need to be production heavy. Another example is when NBC dug into their vaults and re-aired the 1987 Fiesta Bowl to regional viewers, and invited them to participate and comment via social media. The network scrolled the tweets and comments across the screen during the telecast. It was as simple as reaching into the archives and asking fans “what does this mean to you?” It drove engagement and inspired nostalgic excitement. Fans love that trip back into the glory years of a team.

 

Sports Isn’t Non-Essential

Throughout the shutdown, fans were constantly reminded that sports were considered “non-essential,” and from a health and safety perspective, that’s true. From an emotional perspective, however, nothing could be farther from the truth. Sports resonates with fans and supporters, and sports organizations should look to these types of examples to continue to accentuate and amplify the excitement. Fans might be back in the stands soon, but that doesn’t mean we can forget about them outside of the game times. Fans want more. Fans want the whole story and bathe in the historic legacy of their teams via content, tales from the glory days, and a chance to get behind the scenes.

It’s time that teams deliver, and we’ve got a few suggestions on how to do that.