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At Large | Five Covid-19 lessons for the sports industry (that it should have known already)

The complete shutdown of live sport during the coronavirus pandemic has created unique conditions for the next few months, but it has also confirmed challenges that preceded the current crisis.

by Eoin Connolly
At Large | Five Covid-19 lessons for the sports industry (that it should have known already)

Last weekend, I did something deeply radical. I sat on my sofa and watched a live game of soccer. Borussia Dortmund v Schalke 04, since you ask.

There is a long, hard, horrible way to go in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic but some countries and some industries are now at least moving into a new phase. We may still be some time away from live sport becoming part of the background of everyday life, at a volume where it is selectively ignored rather than scrutinised for every possible weakness in its protocols, but more and more events will return in the next couple of months.  

The sports shutdown will not end for everyone yet and the period ahead will be one of compromise and modification, making the best of what is possible right now. Still, this is as good a time as any for sport to reflect on this elongated pause – a time that has brought home realities of which it was already well aware. 

Sport needs to rethink its relationship with risk

Let us be fair, here: a once-in-a-century pandemic that hampers most social activity, throttling one of your primary sources of revenue while eliminating the other, is not the kind of thing that features heavily in most organisations’ financial planning. Being prevented from doing any business at all does not, in itself, suggest any particular flaw in a business model. Sport is not much different from any other part of the live entertainment industry, not to mention airlines, hospitality or further education.

Nonetheless, sports bodies can do more to mitigate against financial risks than having really great insurance. There are huge sections of the industry that were running hot, even in the best of times, and were vulnerable to far milder shocks than this. And there are sports where high inequality is rampant within pyramids of teams that are dependent on each other.   

It will not have taken a catastrophe like this for people to realise that soccer clubs being incentivised to run at a loss to pay salaries was not healthy or that minor league teams in baseball might need support rather than antagonism from the majors. The best argument for more flexibility in the delivery of something like the Olympics was Rio 2016, not Tokyo 2020. We may not have seen Covid-19 coming but most of us could have pointed to the vulnerabilities it might find. There have been some admirable remedies floated, like major relief funds for those worst affected, but the need for fair structural reforms should not be forgotten in the scramble to get everything going again.      

Original IP will be the driver of future growth

The Last Dance was a moment of serendipity 20 years in the making. Not everyone has hundreds of hours of candid footage lying around of one of the most compelling athletes of all time at the triumphant peak of his career, or the resources to turn it into a prestige ten-part documentary. ESPN and Netflix lucked out on that one, and were smart enough to recognise what they had when they bumped it up into the gap left by live sport. 

For other teams, federations and broadcasters, though, the huge success of The Last Dance – not least in its ability to sustain a conversation and commercial interest far beyond the show itself – should be confirmation of the dormant power in their archives. The capacity to spin new stories from that back catalogue, as well as intuitive artificial intelligence-powered interactive experiences, is only beginning to be explored. There are plenty of stories to tell, and plenty of ways to tell them.

So much of the regular sports media mill produces content that is disposable, often unavoidably so: previews, analysis, reaction and chatter. But not all of it needs to be like that. The task of creating more output of lasting value will be the industry’s next big challenge, and a means of tempering the dependency on live rights sales, ticketing, and all that other seasonal income it cannot get to right now. 

Supporters do actually have other interests

One of the overriding suspicions you develop after spending any time at all around the sports industry is that some businesses are a little too into the idea of having a captive audience. Fans develop a decades-long attachment to teams and competitions, plot their lives around league schedules and build social structures around their passions. The default strategy in an alarming number of cases, especially at the elite end, has been to test the extent of that devotion with higher prices and saturated calendars.

After all, where else do they have to go?

Lots of places, as it turns out. Among the lessons of the last couple of months will be that while a core of followers will have hungrily consumed whatever sport-related fare was on offer, plenty more will have explored other interests, watched and read other things, even spent time with actual loved ones. 

This confirms a couple of things. One is that sport is in competition for people’s time and attention, and the gambit of exploiting the value of a broad live audience has its limits. The other is that there is still lots to be learned about what makes sports audiences tick and that putting in the effort to find out what that is will lead to better relationships with fans, and change the proposition on offer to sponsors.

Athletes and fans need a meaningful stake

Nothing tests trust quite like a crisis. As organisations around the world execute delicate plans to get their events up and running again, there are those finding their communities will go with them, and others discovering resistance. 

Some teams and leagues are seeing that no amount of money is worth an athlete surrendering everything. And athletes in some disciplines are being shown just how precarious their situation has become. Both cases highlight the need to facilitate honest, transparent discussion, and foster the sense that competitors are part of something, rather than just financial beneficiaries.

Meanwhile, fans around the world may soon experience the pain of their teams going under, without the recourse to do much about it. Many more might find that decisions are taken that put further distance between them and the things they cherish. As venues reopen empty, it will be clear that piping in sound makes a noise but not an atmosphere.

All of this is going to change

There is a danger of overinterpreting the implications of a temporary set of circumstances. Shaking hands, working from home, running public health: some of the things we do, and the way we do them, might change forever after the profound trauma of Covid-19 and an extended period of social distancing, and others will drift back to how they were.

Long after we emerge from the altered state of lockdown, we will have a prolonged economic crisis to contend with. It may be the latter that is the more lasting impetus for changes that had been brewing long before all of this. There are organisations that will not emerge intact. Financial pressures will change funding models: already, CVC is being linked with a deal to buy into Italian soccer’s Serie A, in what would be the most consequential incursion of venture capital in sport to date.

What comes out of this upheaval will, at least in part, be of this industry’s making. Individual sports will look at internal relationships, overcrowded calendars and outdated practices. Federations and private leagues will be asking whether they need some kind of intermediary body to make sense of the challenges they all suddenly share. Major events can be rebuilt as before, or reimagined to fit the needs of the 21st century – more sustainable, more community-minded.

The question of what comes next has been moved up. It is the question of what comes now. We are not far from finding out.