Covid-19 has changed sport — and the way we experience it as fans — forever

Competitive football may have kicked off behind closed doors, but there's still a long way to go before we get back to experiencing the excitement of live sport — if ever

12 July 2020 - 00:01
By Trevor Crighton
'The stadium offers a live experience, but the digital evolution helps give fans the chance to interact with so much more than just the match itself,' says Absa general manager for sponsorships Mtunzi Jonas.
Image: Siphu Gwetha 'The stadium offers a live experience, but the digital evolution helps give fans the chance to interact with so much more than just the match itself,' says Absa general manager for sponsorships Mtunzi Jonas.

There's plenty about the post-pandemic world that will never be the same again — and one of the biggest adjustments is going to be the new normal for major sporting events, for both participants and spectators.

“It's been 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,” says Paul Geary, director of customer experience at marketing intelligence agency OneCustom, which runs the Official Proteas Supporters' Club (OPSC) in SA.

“Saying 'sport is nothing without the fans' is more than lip service from administrators and athletes — imagine the Springboks returning from Japan with the Webb-Ellis trophy and celebrating without the thousands of cheering fans lining the roads across the country. How will we as South Africans rediscover our sporting soul without an echoing FNB stadium or thousands of fans along the route of the Comrades Marathon?”

How will we as South Africans rediscover our sporting soul without an echoing FNB stadium?
Paul Geary of marketing intelligence agency OneCustom

Germany's Bundesliga led the charge in restarting competitive football behind closed doors, and the English Premier League did the same in mid-June, but there's a long way to go before we get back to participating in and experiencing the excitement of live sport — if ever.

“The collective sense of community between fans at a stadium will be challenged — for example, when a goal is scored, fans won't turn around and embrace each other in celebration,” says Absa general manager for sponsorships Mtunzi Jonas.

“Even the seating arrangements at stadia are going to be impacted in line with social distancing requirements. The live, in-stadium experience will certainly be a very different one, because you won't have the intensity of a packed stadium.”

Jonas says that without fans being able to flock to live events, sponsors and rights holders need to find ways to still capture the winning moments, the atmosphere and the other key elements of the sports viewing experience.

“There's been a great deal of discussion around alternative ways of engaging with fans and there's a phenomenal opportunity to attract even more fans using interactive digital and broadcast mediums,” he says.

“Interaction is not just about posting on social media or a presenter reading a tweet — it goes deeper and is about making fans an integral part of the event. Live-streaming platforms and online supporter groups offer opportunities to weave digital elements into the actual broadcast. The stadium offers a live experience, but the digital evolution helps give fans the chance to interact with so much more than just the match itself.”

He says he expects that the same will be true for mass participation events in the future. “The rise of virtual running events — incorporating a virtual race alongside the existing live one — is an example of creating an opportunity to participate, regardless of your location. This opens up events to broader audiences and helps develop interest in them, beyond the staging country's borders.”

Geary says he believes that sports teams and codes in SA that have the ability to deliver their content direct to consumer (DTC) will be the ones that come out of the pandemic in better shape — both financially and in terms of the vital goodwill of the fans who flock to stadiums 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,” he says.

Jonas agrees: “Sponsors, teams and sporting codes will no longer be able to tell fans what they're going to get and when they will get it. It's an interesting dynamic — fans now want to be part of the action in a way that's never been experienced before. They want to consume sport on their terms. They want to have a direct relationship with an event, sponsor, or team.”

Channels like the OPSC have a much bigger role to play in maintaining stronger direct relationships with fans in future. “By building a membership platform that offers fans a variety of special offers and interactive elements, sponsors and sporting codes can provide further ways for fans to engage with sport and their favourite sporting heroes,” says Geary.

“A membership platform like this is a vehicle that drives engagement and fosters loyalty with their biggest fans. But it's also attention, it's affinity and it's direct ownership and control of that critically important fan relationship.”

For the fan, over and above the ongoing delivery of value, 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. Geary says that this strategy isn't exclusive to sport — it can be applied to other platforms, including everything from theatre and the performing arts to charitable foundations like the Laureus Supporters' Club.

Jonas says he values the behind-the-scenes content that was made available to fans during lockdown. “The kinds of documentaries we've seen have given the viewer even more insight into particular sporting personalities, teams or events. This content has attracted even more fans, beyond the sport itself,” he says, citing Michael Jordan documentary The Last Dance as an example.

“It talks to the importance and impact of storytelling and goes beyond sport. The game was a conduit for telling the story about leadership and of a group of individuals who were able to achieve something extraordinary.”

In terms of the large-scale sponsorships behind live sporting events, brands have largely honoured their sponsorship agreements under lockdown. “This is significant because the revenue generated from those sponsorships is key to the sustainability of the respective events. The value of the sponsorship lies in the relationship with the rights holder. Sponsors and sporting codes that are continuously engaging on the need to digitise and find relevant ways to engage with fans are the ones that are going to thrive, post Covid-19,” he says.

He says that lessons learnt from the pandemic are definitely going to affect the way sponsorship agreements are negotiated in future.

As professional sporting codes are able to resume activity again — even behind closed doors — Geary emphasises that building relationships with fans will be the key to their sustainability.

“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.”


The Bundesliga became the first major league in any sport in the world to return to the game, on May 16. The club became a reference point for all the other leagues trying to find their way out of lockdown.

Impact of the crowd on home teams

  • The performances of home teams in the Bundesliga have collapsed in front of empty stands in what are called Geisterspiele, or “ghost games”.
  • Home victories slipped by 10 percentage points, to 33% of matches in empty stadiums from 43% in full ones. Home teams scored fewer goals than they had in full stadiums, leading to a decline in goal scoring over all.
  • Fewer shots were taken (a decrease of 10%), and those taken were worse.
  • Home teams, research found, also attempted fewer crosses, won fewer corners and tried fewer dribbles.

Impact of the crowd on the referee

  • Home teams were penalised more for fouls in empty stadiums than they were when the stands were full. Both teams were blown for more fouls in empty stadiums than in full ones.

All in the mind

  • Empty stands seemed to sap games of their urgency.
  • The urge to entertain seems to diminish if there is nobody to respond.
  • Lack of fans created a more cautious, more mechanical approach, focused on the end result more than the process.

• Data provided by analysis firm Gracenote