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  • Writer's pictureDavid Brake

Digital trends accelerate due to impact of Covid-19

We are halfway through a year which is already like no other in history.

When we wrote Seven League’s Seven Digital Trends for 2020 there was one thing we couldn’t have predicted: the disruption that Covid-19 would cause to global sport.

What we have seen, though, is that the coronavirus has been an accelerant.

Digital technology adoption has skyrocketed. Behaviours that were taking hold pre-quarantine are now mainstays and growing at an exponential rate, forcing sports organisations to adapt at an unprecedented rate.

To use a slightly worn industry metaphor, it’s easier to fix a plane while it’s on the ground. That’s what many of our clients have done during the lockdown - taking the opportunity to reset their digital thinking during this unprecedented period with no live sport.

That has undoubtedly sped up the trends we saw coming down the line and so, with half the year behind us, we decided to look back at our seven predicted trends and see how things are panning out.

Prediction 1 - We’ve hit peak subscription


Consumers will have an upper tolerance for what they subscribe to (we predict five at most) and will become increasingly reluctant to sign-up to any and every new content service charging a monthly fee.


Disney+ has been a phenomenal success, scoring 54.5 million subscribers in its first six months of business. The package is irresistible, the brand is universally known, and the marketing campaign was extremely well orchestrated, launching in Europe within the first week of lockdown. Even then, the caveat remains that long-term success will depend on its ability to keep the library fresh through original programming.

However, Disney+ is an outlier. The reality comes from new platforms such as HBO MAX, Quibi and Peacock (NBC’s OTT service) which were all released to mild or poor results. The ambitious pitch of Luminary - encouraging users to pay for podcasts, a content type that is free elsewhere - has flopped with only 80,000 paying subscribers.

DAZN has suffered heavily due to the absence of live sport, requiring a cash injection to support its efforts, doubling down on its consumer offering by creating a one-stop shop for 200 markets. The WWE Network has opened up its free options to encourage new customers to the platform, after seeing its OTT revenue fall sharply.

They’re not alone - the likes of NBA, NHL, and NFL are all offering enhanced free content options on their owned platforms. A smart tactic for acquiring more user data to convert into subscribers down the line when live rights become available.

Prediction 2 - Your next big signing will be virtual


We will see more sports creating year-round entertainment properties and new virtual IP in an effort to diversify their revenues, access new audiences and spread positive messages.


No-one could have predicted how fast this trend would be expedited. With the lack of player access, organisations have had to focus on new content formats and ideas to populate their channels.

While the majority of examples are not revolutionary there are some exciting new signs to be found. Chicago Bulls used Benny the Bull to launch branded content on their TikTok account. FC Barcelona’s ambitious cartoon project was produced in collaboration with Sony Music Latin Iberia. Mailman client Borussia Dortmund clocked 2.9 million views for their live stream event, which included a user generated content juggling challenge, fan reporter vlog and Dortmund China office documentary whilst incorporating all 12 of their Chinese partners.

Stepping back even further, the lines between reality and the virtual world are becoming blurred. Take Travis Scott’s recent concert in Fortnite and the rise of virtual festivals in Minecraft achieving audiences in the tens of millions. Covid-19 has forced users to find new entertainment, drawing them towards the online world. As the Premier League prepares to restart in late June, there are plans to take the crowd noise from EA’s game FIFA 20 to provide the atmosphere for the empty stadiums.

Prediction 3 - Fans don’t want to be owned


Privacy considerations are increasingly driving consumer adoption and use of digital services. Companies will need to tread carefully in their attempts to gain personal data.


We have seen small tweaks from all the major social media platforms towards this trend. Twitter introduced a new reply system restricting who can respond to a user’s message and we’ve seen the rise of private ‘rooms’ and co-watching on Instagram, Houseparty and Facebook.

On a smaller scale, there are new ‘privacy’ focused social platforms such as Clubhouse - audio-and-member-only, and Celebrity, where celebrities advertise a private mobile number to allow fans to text them. It’s unlikely J-Lo will text you back in a hurry though.

The strongest indicator of the trend is the continued rise of Signal. The messaging service that is predicated on its significant privacy and encryption features.

In China, it’s in the letter of the law. No foreign entities are allowed to own personal data of fans in the country, forcing them to explore alternative strategies to “own the relationship”.

Even so, Apple’s recent decision to open up its app notifications to allow marketers to directly send marketing messages is a sign that the trend is not universal. We believe that the trend remains directionally true, even if it hasn’t been accelerated in the same way as others on the list.

Prediction 4 - Sports participation will be gamified


Rapid strides in geo-tracking, image-recognition technology and greater uptake of wearables. Sports that offer ways for fans to track and gamify their participation will reap significant rewards.


This is the one trend that has not been accelerated by the virus. With the world in lockdown, participation in sports is at an all-time low.

Yet this is still a trend for the future. In the interim, the rise of the virtual event, tying in with Prediction Two, has seen individuals using devices and technology to match up against each other.

We have seen moves from the Professional Squash Association (PSA)’s ‘Fun With Balls’, bringing tech and interactivity to the sport.

Formula 1’s embrace of Virtual Grand Prix with its on-grid talent, celebrity connections, and elaborate gaming contraptions has been an impressive and noticeable series of events.

They’re not alone. The multiplayer online cycling training program Zwift has encouraged celebrity races with Kevin Pietersen taking on the likes of Chris Froome and Olly Murs, racing each other from their home in real-time on a virtual circuit.

The one that stands out most is NYRR Volvo Virtual Racing. Freed from geographical restrictions, they are “transforming organised racing as we know it.” By hosting their races virtually, users are able to submit their Strava times online - no matter where they run - ranking them on an online leaderboard with competitors from around the world. Rather than a temporary fix, this is just one example of a business seizing the opportunity to adapt to a new world.

Prediction 5 - Storytelling overtakes performance marketing


Rightsholders and organisations should move their focus beyond paid media ROI metrics and optimising advertising CPMs, towards telling stories that help them connect with fans on more of an emotional level.


Advertising budgets have taken a huge hit. When the ad market returns it will have rapidly accelerated the shift to digital, entrenching Facebook and Google's position at the top (with Amazon in hot pursuit). With TV networks struggling and print all but dead, the news is not good for small publishers.

While the duopoly of Facebook and Google effectively owns performance marketing, brands are increasingly realising that they have to be on the right side of social issues affecting their consumers and the world at large. With #BlackLivesMatter, some brands have got their messaging right, and some have not.

The likes of Nike, the NBA, and Green Bay Packers have all published well-executed and well thought-out content with a clear voice, making their stance clear to their fans and the world.

While others have handled it poorly with either delayed, tone-deaf or generic statements that have disillusioned fans and onlookers across the industry. Actions like this create a vacuum which doubt and criticism can fill, lowering the status of the brand. Communicating what you stand for has become more important than ever before.

Prediction 6 - Fans don’t want to watch. They want to change the outcome


Fans will want to have more interactions and control over the content they watch.


This trend’s progression can be interpreted in one of two extremes.

On the one hand, you can argue that this has not happened yet. The global audience has moved in droves to their comfort zones - Disney, BBC’s iPlayer, Netflix - to watch content they know and love. They want to sit and be entertained, perhaps even comforted, with minimal effort. The latter of this trio has reported all-time high usage throughout the lockdown.

And yet, Netflix is not the only platform breaking records. Gaming hours are up and Twitch, Amazon’s interactive streaming platform, hit all-time highs in hours watched, hours streamed and concurrent viewers amid the coronavirus quarantine.

For the first time since the platform debuted in 2012, Twitch topped three billion hours watched over the first quarter of 2020. Add into this the rise of co-watching and group chats, interactive and participatory digital experiences are beginning to enter and dominate a significant section of the landscape.

All these platforms were popular before lockdown but their popularity has been rapidly accelerated by Covid-19. With no immediate end to the industry disruption in sight, these experiences will continue to prosper and evolve.

Prediction 7 - 5G won’t have any major impact


The transition from 4G to 5G won’t happen overnight. Carriers have to deploy roll-out across

multiple countries and regions, consumers have to upgrade to 5G phone plans and tech companies have to create products that harness this new capability.


Unless you are a believer that 5G is the cause of coronavirus, the technology has had little to no impact on the day-to-day lives of the average person.

Networks have only just begun to roll out 5G, with coverage limited to large metropolitan cities in the US and the UK. Even then, only 10 phones can currently utilise 5G with all Apple devices currently not equipped.

The developments around 5G have occurred on a political spectrum as governments discuss the best possible roll out.

The lockdown has only affirmed our previous comment that organisations should work on getting the basics right before concerning themselves with 5G. Does your website work? Are your videos compelling? How easy is your app to navigate? These issues remain the priority.

Oh, and to be clear, 5G has zero connection to coronavirus.

It’s already been a year unlike any other in living memory. Change and disruption are now the new normal. This places digital at the heart of everything. We’re helping many of our clients to use this period to reassess their levels of digital transformation. If you would like to discuss yours, please do get in touch.

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