Fan positivity for sport behind closed doors has grown and fears over re-attendance can be quelled

Before COVID-19, the sporting world was characterised by a globalised and cyclical sporting calendar, with broadcast, commercial and matchday the three core financial pillars of its existence. While relentless, this calendar is also fragile, and the Pandemic has thrown it into disarray. With sports returning, the terrain has changed, and robust research is required to understand how. In the second part of our fan insights trilogy, we analyse sports fan perspectives to offer insights and guidance on how they expect sport to adapt, to understand how the sporting world will thrive again.

Fans are open to watching sport behind closed doors, but they want it to be accessible

Sofas will replace stands, and TV remotes will replace tickets, as many sports rights holders focus on getting sport up and running behind closed doors for unfinished seasons and beyond. A global spotlight is on the Bundesliga and UFC, who have pioneered the format, with the Premier League, Formula One, Royal Ascot and the PGA following close behind, and other including Premiership Rugby and ECB in the planning stages. Despite the lack of crowds, 71% of fans will not be deterred from watching sport behind closed doors on TV or online, helped by many having now seen it in action. Competitiveness, uncertainty of outcome and feats of sporting excellence are other elements that make sport, sport, and these remain very much alive behind-closed doors.

Growing openness to behind closed doors fixtures comes at a time when the format is also in its infancy. Virtual crowds and pre-recorded crowd noises (trialled by the Bundesliga) are all efforts to close the gap to sport as we knew it. However, sports rights holders should not just look at how to replace the atmosphere created by crowds, as this is likely to be unachievable, but also at how the at-home viewer experience can be enhanced. Wide-ranging commentary and punditry choices, referee mics and 5G automated score updates are just some potential avenues. However, what is imperative to sports fans first and foremost, is access.

74% of our Sports Fan Panel think it’s imperative that sport behind closed doors is available to watch as widely as possible. The Premier League has moved in the right direction, relocating 4 fixtures to the BBC for the first time ever, and also 4 to Amazon Prime, which will be free-to-air. With the Championship and potentially League One to resume, EFL’s iFollow, and also Formula One’s F1 TV, spearhead the rise of OTT platforms for sport, and a movement towards increased global accessibility – albeit usually behind a paywall. Other sports rights holders should review their digital offering, with it presenting opportunities to understand audience data in a more comprehensive way, and to engage fans in a highly personalised manner.

Fans are more anxious to attend live sport and need to feel safe before returning

With reliance on sources of revenue weighted differently on a sport to sport basis, getting live sport on the screen may be the overriding priority for some, but not for others. Many sports organisations will be very keen to get bottoms on seats to get revenue streams flowing again once lockdown ceases. However, a fan-led focus will need to be adopted to realise this. Sports should aim to remedy reattendance anxiety, which has increased by 27% in the month since our April 2020 survey, as fans’ knowledge of COVID-19 transmission improves. Growing anxiety also explains why the number of fans planning to reattend events as soon as they can has decreased by 19%, just in the past month.

Despite this, 41% of fans are still positive about supporting their beloved teams as soon as lockdown lifts – and the rest can doubtless be won over. With fan anxieties a roadblock to reattendance, clubs and event organisers can facilitate fans’ return to stadium gates, by tackling specific fears highlighted in research. Global survey data shows that regular disinfection is most important to sports fans when visiting public spaces, while adherence to social distancing measures and provision of hand sanitizer are also desired: return to stadium plans should incorporate these. Measures such as these will also need to be visible to fans as lockdown begins to lift, to quell fear of the unknown. As agreed by our Industry panel last month, strategising should begin now

Sports that are quick to resume can tap into new audiences on a global scale

Excluding the Bundesliga, individual and non-contact sports will experience a quicker and/or smoother return to the screen. Mixed martial arts, snooker and horse-racing evidence this, with all three leading sports staging a comeback in recent weeks, albeit in a trimmed format. This will give them access to part of lost broadcast revenue at an earlier stage, while also avoiding the organisational headache of returning teams to training and eventually matchday. Sports that cross the fan viewership line first can even grow their audiences at this time, underlined by 56% of sports fans being more likely to watch sports that they wouldn’t normally watch as it makes a staggered return.        

Having pivoted swiftly, Formula E and Formula One have been able to tap into this thirst for live sport like few other sports – throughout lockdown. Formula E’s Race at Home Challenge and Formula One’s Virtual Grand Prix highlight recognition of a growing esports market. Tapping into it will help bridge a new generation into the sport and unlock a revenue stream that can withstand all weathers, unlike broadcast, commercial and matchday. The buzz caused by Extreme E at what is dubbed a ‘crisis point’ for sport highlights its potential for growth, and that of the motorsport industry in general, particularly as crowds are not a core component of the sport for the at-home motorsport viewer.   

Lets discuss…

The Sports Fan Panel represent over 50 sports and are a highly engaged audience that endeavour to shape decisions within sport. If you would like to explore the benefits of tapping into the Sports Fan Panel for your organisation, and view infographics such as the one below, then please click here.

Sports fans are more active than ever, as ‘accessible sports’ look to benefit

The UK Government announced lockdown measures on March 23rd 2020, making it 70 days since the nation came to a standstill. This pause has had a widespread impact on society, politics, and economies, and of course sport, which is intertwined with all three. The relentless use of “unprecedented” across sport media during this period highlights the need for answers. With supporters and participants being the main source of revenue for sport, whether it be broadcast, commercial, matchday or target-led government grants, there is no-one better to tap into to inform decision-making, and the future of sport, than the fans.

In the second edition of our Sports Fan Panel COVID-19 survey, 1878 fans told us how COVID-19 has continued to impact their lives and what the return of sport should look like. Over the coming weeks, we will be releasing our findings in three parts – Sports Fans’ Lives, the Sporting World and Women’s Sport. In combination with a powerful sample size, our research and analysis adheres to robust methods. We stress this fact, as now, more than ever, it is essential that sports organisations are aware of where insight is coming from and that they directly question what they are told and/or read.

A positive paradox for COVID-19 and exercise

The widespread benefits of exercise on physical health are well-known. More recently, the positive effect that exercise has on mental health is also being discoursed and grounded in research. Supplementing this, we can reveal that sports fans are tackling one of the most challenging times in recent history – head on. 74% of the Panel recognise that exercise can be instrumentalised to better manage their mental well-being. This underpins the latest wave of Sport England’s longitudinal analysis which identifies that 63% of adults report mental health improvements from exercise during the pandemic. Despite the shackles placed on the nation by an invisible viral jailer, we are clearly finding ways to access exercise and harness its benefits.

In fact, our latest Sports Fan panel findings indicate that people are spending more time exercising compared to the early stages of lockdown. 54% of the Panel are exercising for 5 or more hours per week, which is a 17% increase from our April 2020 survey. As well as doing more exercise, more sports fans are setting out on foot, hopping on the bike and getting their sweat on at home. It seems a restricting Coronavirus pandemic is having an ongoing positive impact on the nation’s exercise habits, which is taking greater effect as lockdown continues.

But what does this mean for sports during lockdown?

‘Accessible sports’, like cycling and golf, will emerge stronger

With 21% of the Panel cycling, and a further 26% planning to take it up, there is an opportunity to help the nation switch from four wheels, to two. British Cycling have taken note, re-launching the #choosecycling campaign that aims to drive this process and to achieve their goal of inspiring “the next generation of cyclists”. The National Governing Body (NGB) will also benefit from a widened participation base, and a deeper talent pool to channel into one of six cycling disciplines, if they can engage new participants and encourage them to continue once normality returns. This is a unique period and an opportunity that cannot be missed by sports that are still accessible, and effort should be made to attain and retain new participants.

Golf and tennis are examples of ‘accessible sports’ that have featured in Government narrative in past weeks. Sports fans have expressed a desire to tee off for the first time as lockdown extends, which will be encouraging for England Golf. This stems from unprecedented (yep, we said it) levels of leisure time across the nation, where for both golf and tennis, the full sport, or at least the majority of it, can still be undertaken with social distancing in play. However, there is an expiry date on ‘accessible sports’, as other sports will return and people will have less leisure time, and so representative NGB’s must act – fast. Top-down visible safe-practice guidance, incentivising beginners and inventive marketing campaigns pushed through digital channels, are proactive and effective ways to do this.

A fantastic example of an NGB not letting the crisis go to waste through a proactive and inventive approach, are British Triathlon. Their Colour Challenge encourages participants to engage with daily exercise regimes, and progress is tracked via a customised colour chart. Through attaining sign-ups and newsletter recipients via an inventive campaign, British Triathlon are elevating the sport at a turbulent time, while raising funds for charitable causes. NGB’s, like British Triathlon, who are able to pivot quickly in response to the pandemic through innovative campaigns, will also place themselves in a better position to withstand the impact of the virus.

But, what about team sports, that are built around shared goals and action?

Team sports will stage a comeback

£35 million of Sport England funding has been offered to grassroots clubs and the physical activity sector, helping to keep sport afloat. While essential, this lifejacket still cannot accelerate the return of team sports that are more tightly bound by social distancing rules compared to ‘accessible sports’. ‘Staying alert’ is typically a marker success in team sport, but at the two month stage of the pandemic, this phrase has taken on a new meaning. Six people up to two metres apart will become the new normal for the near future of sport and exercise, but all those involved with grassroots sports will be encouraged by 80% of sports fans planning to resume sports participation.

In the face of new challenges, team sports have been reactive, publishing quick turnaround return to sport guidance in response to Government guidelines. This is a step in the right direction, as fans want to return but also need to feel safe. Our Sports Fan Panel evidence this standpoint, with 62% likely to return to teams sports, while 18% of fans were unsure and require more information to resume participation. This is promising news for teams sports, who should look to maintain this level of transparency with fans like never before, as their return, and the revival of grassroot sport, clearly depends on it.

Gyms have also been trying to keep members connected during their closure via social media. Migrating workout routines from gym to digital channels is a smart move at this time, considering that 40% of sports fans are exercising at home. However, with this relocation arises new challenges. The likes of Joe Wicks and Meggan Grubb are new competition to gyms, in a fitness world that has become digitalised and domesticated by lockdown, and where limitless online choice offers an attractive alternative to being confined to what is available in a 5-mile radius. Yet, gyms have unique selling points of their own, like rich social networks and a better range of equipment. Apparently these pros outweigh any cons, as 67% of our Panel will return to the gym and lift… once lockdown does.

Lets discuss…

Our Sports Fan Panel have shared positivity around their plans to return to sport, and the full infographic is available below. If you would like further information on the unique benefits of the Sports Fan Panel and how your organisation can use it, please register your interest here.