COVID-19 presents new challenges, but also new opportunities for sport industry professionals

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For Goodform’s most recent survey in partnership with iSportconnect, individuals working across the sport industry gave their views on challenges and opportunities at this unprecedented time. 86% of professionals perceived the impact of COVID-19 to be negative for them and their organisation, however, only 25% felt this impact would continue into 2021. Considering the prospect of a packed sporting calendar next year, many involved in the industry clearly share some optimism about the future of sport.

But what is the biggest challenge faced by the industry right now? The financial ramifications of lost broadcast revenue is the most recognised hurdle to overcome for professionals, with 68% picking it. Consequently, the proverb ‘never let a crisis go to waste’ has never been more fitting, as clubs, governing bodies and rights holders look for innovative ways to maintain engagement. Despite the resultant competition to the traditional broadcast format, only 33% believe that the pandemic will weaken the value of TV rights in the long-run.

The financial implications of lost sponsorship revenue is another major challenge in the sport industry, according to 49% of survey respondents. Consequently, 81% of these individuals highlighted the importance of data and evidence to support the benefits of partnerships. At a time of uncertainty for sport, this is just one example that positions research and insight as an essential step in strategic planning and revival.

Strategic planning was a standout route to finding success at this time with 66% of professionals spotlighting it, while increased focus on data and engagement was the second most recognised opportunity at 55%. These are some of the key opportunities explored in Goodform’s Guide to Growth document, designed to support sport organisations during challenging times. If you’d like to discuss the document and/or support and guidance at this time, please contact, Marketing Director, Goodform.

Interestingly, only 19% of survey respondents feel clubs, governing bodies and rights holders are maximising the current potential for fan engagement. This seems to be true as archived footage and sports involvement in the community were how our Sports Fan Panel most wanted to consume sport, whereas industry professionals agree that athlete content is instead most in demand. We explore the impact that COVID-19 has had on fans and the wider sporting world in our recent discussion from our Sports Fan Panel insights, available here.

We will continue to offer a 360 view of sport through our research and insights from fans and industry professionals – stay tuned!

Impact of the Coronavirus on sport – the fan perspective

The Coronavirus was declared as a pandemic by the World Health Organisation on the 11th of March 2020. With no regard for geography, the virus has had a widespread impact on societies, economies and politics across the globe. The response to cancel sports competition has unarguably been the right one, but how has this affected the most important stakeholders in sport – the fans?

1788 members of our Sports Fan Panel shared their views on the impact that the Coronavirus pandemic has had on their lives and the wider sporting world. They were a hung jury when casting their vote on how current competitions should finish, but most were excited to re-immerse themselves in live sports. It seems COVID-19 has dealt a significant blow to sport, but fans are ready to bring it back to life.

The sporting world

There is speculation that the Rugby Football Union could suffer a £45 million loss in revenue due to the pandemic, and the Premier League a staggering £1 billion. Two of the biggest sporting competitions every year, the Six Nations and the Premier League, therefore face pressure to finish their campaign whilst minimising disruption to the fragile, cyclical sporting calendar. At an unprecedented time for sport, this is no easy task.

This struggle is compounded by the fact that fan opinions are split, meaning any decision made is bound to cause upset. 24% of the Sports Fan Panel want the Premier League season to end immediately and current standings to remain, whereas; 22% agree that the season should finish now, but argue that points be void. The remaining fans want the season to finish, with 22% wishing this to be from behind closed doors, but 19% arguing that fans should be in attendance.

This concept of fixtures and events taking place from behind closed doors has been discussed in sports news frequently in recent weeks. Finishing the season and hosting sport events with crowds in the foreseeable future, may not be possible until a vaccine for the virus is widely available. Who knows when this will be? With 43% of the panel agreeing that behind closed doors games should occur in the event of a pandemic, live games without fans would help fill the void for many supporters, but can they be deemed a panacea?

There is consensus amongst fans on how the pandemic has been handled so far. On the 11th of March, the same day COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, over 52’000 Atletico Madrid and Liverpool fans mixed in and around Anfield. Unsurprisingly, around 3 in 5 of our Sports Fan Panel agreed that the match, as well as Olympiacos v Wolves and the Cheltenham Festival – all of which took place as the potential scale of the pandemic was becoming apparent – should have been cancelled or postponed. But who do fans think are responsible for softening the impact of the virus on the sporting world?

84% and 79% of fans believe that governing bodies and the Premier League respectively, have a duty to support lower league clubs in the fallout of the pandemic. This will be welcome news for the Premier League, as their advancement of £125 million to EFL clubs, is likely to be supported by fans. Conversely, this may be deemed by clubs as a short-term adhesive for the impact of the pandemic, which will have long-term implications. But, the spotlight has turned to players, for now.

Fans’ lives

Our Sports Fan Panel have been doing less exercise during lockdown, which may be indicative of efforts to avoid transmission of the virus. However, 39% have been working out at home, with 23% of these individuals looking online for help. Evidenced barriers to exercise such as cost, time and inspiration are no longer as prominent, and the likes of Joe Wicks, Gym Shark and Tyson Fury, have taken note. Clearly, exercise habits are changing.

The Coronavirus has evidently impacted fans’ relationship with fitness, but what about their relationship with sport? With an entire roster of mega-events and elite competitions postponed or cancelled, a void has been opened in fans’ lives. The Olympic Games, Euros, Premier League season, Six Nations, Wimbledon, T20 World Cup and the Open, form just part of an extensive list. Unsurprisingly, 3 in 4 of our Sports Fan Panel agree that they are impacted by the loss of live sport.

So how can sports stay connected? Across broadcast, social media and other digital platforms, archive footage has been instrumentalised to drive fan engagement, even leading to a temporary re-naming of Match of the Day to ‘Match of Their Day’. This was the most popular method amongst fans to drive engagement, with 49% outlining highlights as the way to do this.

However, the majority of the Panel have cast their attention away from sport for a replacement, with only 16% choosing to spend time they usually use to watch sport, with consuming sport in a new way. It seems re-living moments of glory will bring joy to many fans, but nothing compares to experiencing it for the first time.

Hearing this, sports organisations may feel helpless, but, a standout finding from the survey will offer some comfort. 89% of fans plan to attend the same number of events once sport resumes and 72% will be no more anxious than before the pandemic. Although the way in which fans consume sport from the comfort of their own home is quickly changing, attending live sport events offers something that can’t be matched during this period.

Hopefully this will act as a turning point for sports rights holders, who can use this time to review and improve the live sports experience, which on the whole, has been neglected. More from us on this very soon.

Final thoughts

The sporting world may be changing rapidly, but the time-tested emotional bond between fan and club, team and athlete, seems resolute in the face of the pandemic. The reliance sports organisations have on traditional broadcast revenue may be changing as new channels come to the fore, but the prospect of attendance revenue upon sports return represents a light at the end of the tunnel for sports organisations. More so than ever, fans will be relied upon as the heartbeat of sport.

Emerging sports, and the environmental impact of sports in general

Sport has an ever changing landscape with international markets representing an opportunity for significant growth for many sports. How fans consume and engage with sports is fundamentally changing, particularly for millennials and Gen Z across the globe. This is epitomised by the incredible year-on-year growth experienced by Esports.

So, does the changing landscape allow for new sports to gain greater traction, quicker? Goodform’s Sports Fan Panel survey looked at a selection of emerging sports to understand awareness levels. The sports were selected to cover a range of different styles that are likely to appeal to different audiences.

Formula E leads the way

Formula E leads the pack with 81% of people being aware of it, and 69% knowing what the sport is. Rugby X and Obstacle Course Racing (Tough Mudder, Spartan Race etc.) both also recorded high awareness levels with 77% of people having heard of the sports, but only 57% and 58% respectively knowing what the sport is.

It would appear that the Free-to-air broadcast route that Formula E has taken is proving effective in growing the sport. 54% of people’s awareness of Formula E came via TV, whilst 39% of those that know what the sport is have watched their races. The accessibility of Formula E races not only on television, but also online, puts it in pole position in an industry where being available digitally is fast becoming a factor for success.

In contrast, awareness of sports that allow people to take part in them such as Obstacle Course Racing and Ultimate Frisbee, is driven by word of mouth and social activation from those that have taken part in the sport. They represent an emerging type of sport that is built around participation, social capital and visibility on social media.

Environmental impact of sports

On their own, both sport and climate change make headlines, yet the impact that sport has on the environment rarely does. Despite this, 69% of our Sports Fan Panel believe reducing the environmental impact of sport to be important, and 89% and 77% agree that this should be done by reducing the use of single-use plastics and carbon emissions respectively.

This provides further explanation for Formula E’s success. The sport has saved over 300’000 plastic water bottles by using 100% recyclable water pouches, forming a part of its wider sustainability strategy. This Life Cycle Assessment is used to continuously analyse the environmental footprint of Formula E and action improvements, such as not using single-use plastics.

So, fans recognise the importance that sports try and lower their environmental impact, although, it appears that this is often not essential to increasing viewership or participation. While Formula E have attracted audiences through their dedicated sustainability strategy, 64% of the Sports Fan Panel claim this would have no impact on their likelihood to watch a sport.

Furthermore, maintaining competitiveness, quality and excitement in sport superseded lowering environmental impact for the majority of our Panel. However, it may be exciting for environmentalists, that 35% of the panel were willing to sacrifice these three core facets of sport to make a difference environmentally.

We don’t want sport to lose the components that make it, well… sport, but, it clearly has a role to play in a more sustainable future.

What now?

The shifting of the sporting landscape has quickened in the months since our Sports Fan Panel shared their views on emerging sports. The coronavirus pandemic has made a big impact and will be damaging for many sports organisations, in particular emerging mass participation events. But, it’s important to be positive during this challenging period. Will there be an opportunity for some sports to reach new audiences and new heights?

E-sports are once again our front-runner. Twitch, an e-sports streaming platform, has experienced a 40% growth in viewership between January and March. While many sports traditionalists will question the sporting legitimacy of competitive gaming, there is no doubting its popularity in recent months. It looks like captive audiences in pursuit of their sporting fix are looking online to get it.

For traditional sports it is essential to adapt to a new type of demand, and horse racing and cycling have been the quickest to react. The Grand National and the Tour of Flanders were televised this weekend, but both horse and bike were only witnessed in the virtual world. This new format may not have appealed to some fans, however, both sports will be ensuring broadcasting revenue that is key to survival at this time.

Sports not equipped for the virtual world still seek to reach the screen, which could be from behind closed doors. While this could be considered damage limitation for the Premier League, Rugby League may view finishing the Super League season as a one-off opportunity. Being broadcast with less scheduling competition could win over fans of other sports and level the playing field.

And what of the environment? The exact long-term implications of coronavirus on climate change won’t be known for some time. What is clear though, is that when there is a consensus across society that action is required, extreme measures can be established in a moment. Lets hope more than just sport-based lessons are learnt during this period.

For more information about this research or Goodform’s Sports Fan Panel, please contact Alexandra Kyrke-Smith, Strategy Director –