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  • Writer's pictureLewis Wiltshire

How the Digital Sports industry is responding to Coronavirus

“It’s like fixing an aeroplane while it’s in mid-air.”

Everyone who works in digital sports has heard this line. The need for new, clear, strategic thinking is interrupted by the very thing that brought us to sports in the first place: games.

Games! The relentless flow of games! Never-ending rounds of matches. For football clubs it’s Saturday, Tuesday, Sunday, Wednesday, Saturday. For 10, sometimes 11 months of the year. In leagues like the NBA and NHL, it’s more like every night. When there is a pause, it’s just enough time for media teams to quickly recharge their batteries and get straight back to it.

For the entire history of digital coverage of sports, the calendar of matches plus the evolution of content, has meant that media teams within sports organisations live day-to-day.

Our job at Seven League has been to help fix those aeroplanes while they flew.

Now, we’re helping some of our clients re-engineer them completely.

During the coronavirus, and the unprecedented pause in live sports, there is a need for both short-term content re-thinking and long-term strategic rethinking.

In the short-term, sports channels on digital need to decide and clearly communicate their purpose. This will likely include:

Encourage: the sports industry is highly influential and should be telling people to stay safe and follow Government advice

Entertain: give people something to feel positive about during his unprecedented crisis

Energise: help people stay physically active during isolation. The sports industry is well-placed to show people how

Digital, at this time, is the frontline. It’s where people who are staying at home can turn, in order to stay connected to their sport, and their communities. Which is important for the mental health of many during isolation.

Sports channels on digital – with their world-class access to expertise in health and fitness advice – have an additional role to play in advising people how to stay physically active. We know sports that are pivoting to make this a bigger part of their online presence and, most notably, ‘The Body Coach’ Joe Wicks set the standard on Monday when hundreds of thousands of people joined him for a Monday morning PE lesson.

What can we learn from China?

Seven League is part of the Mailman Group, the HQ of which is in Shanghai. We’ve seen what happened to digital engagement in China when the coronavirus first hit there. Earlier in March, Andrew Collins, Group CEO of Mailman, wrote about how European football clubs in China saw a 77% increase in engagement and a 79% increase in follower growth during Chinese New Year 2020 compared to CNY 2019.

In the three weeks from January 14 2020, online usage in China grew over 20% to 6.11bn hours – over 6 hours per Chinese.

The same is happening – or will happen – in Europe.

How should sports respond?

In the short-term: emotional intelligence. In the longer-term: business intelligence.

In other words, people need to hear from their favourite teams, athletes and sports now. Sports have a role to play during this public health crisis.

In the longer-term, and behind-the-scenes, organisations like ours will be helping sports to reset.

While this momentary pause in play has frontline social media and content teams energetically filling the void that live sports has left, it also offers a chance for teams to take a step back and assess their overall digital business.

It allows them to critically evaluate their organisation and ask more strategic questions such as how reliant on matchday activities are we with our content? What is the right content mix? Are we maximising our archive? What infrastructure developments should we invest in? How can we get ahead for the start of the new term?

Most importantly, what will fans want from us when sport returns to their lives? Are we set-up to provide that?

This is a moment for sports to consider their influential role and how they can keep their fans encouraged, entertained and energised, but also to rethink what our industry will look like in a post-coronavirus world, and what their role will be in that.

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