5 Lasting Effects the 2020 Sports Season Cancellations Will Have on Fan Expectations

sports fan engagement

And what media, technology, and gaming companies can do to get ahead of it

As nearly every major global sporting event has been canceled or suspended because of the coronavirus, sports fans are having to adapt and find new ways to channel their energy. Similarly, broadcasters, franchises, and athletes are looking to remain relevant and when possible, forward facing. In the article, 4 Mission-Critical Actions for Sports Leagues and Marketers to Engage Fans, my colleague Tommy Stinson discussed how networks and leagues are finding creative, nimble ways to reconnect with fans. These changes must transition fans into the new-normal of sports participation: a permanent technological model to embrace fans in a future of possible global health and political uncertainties to come. One thing is clear, when live sports resume, it will bring with it an increasingly tech savvy fan base, eager for inclusion.

We interviewed sports fans and industry experts about how they are currently feeling, behaving, and thinking in regard to the new-normal of sports. We see five new expectations fans have for broadcasters, teams, and technology that bring them a more contextual, dynamic, authentic, immersive, and integrated live sports experience.

1. Added value through contextual narrative

Broadcasters and franchises have been getting creative, pairing up athletes and sportscasters to give new life and perspective to existing content, and to add real-time commentary for re-aired games and matches. As fans continue to get a taste for a new level of narration and depth, there will likely be a demand for content to continue to be elevated in this way as live sports are re-introduced. This presents an opportunity for more involvement from franchises and players, and also an opportunity for broadcasters, since fans have reason to re-watch a game after the initial airing. For example…

  1. Re-airing a vintage game just isn’t enough. Can I say, “spoiler alert?” Programs like ESPN’s “Coaches’ Film Room” are doing a great job offering viewers the option of watching the game with coach commentary, adding valuable perspective and stories. Being able to data mine existing pre-recorded content and production elements and add new voices to tell the story from a different perspective can give new life to content.
  2. Similarly, the voice of the player is being tapped in real time. When the rescheduling of The Masters hit fans hard, Turner Sports found a way to innovate. They have planned a live broadcast event, airing on TNT, TBS, truTV and HLN, called “The Match: Champions for Charity” in which legendary golf rivals Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods will rematch accompanied by NFL rivals Tom Brady and Peyton Manning. In this spectator-less, caddie-less Memorial Day weekend event, the four payers (Phil-Brady vs Tiger-Manning) will be outfitted with open mics, allowing them to communicate with one another and broadcast commentators throughout the game. This innovative and interactive approach will provide viewers a never-before-seen look at the professional play-by-play process and a front row seat to the competition. With the inclusion of NFL’s Brady and Manning, Turner (who is known for NBA, MLB, and March Madness) is brilliantly drawing NFL fans to an event with the potential to front load advertisers who may typically be more comfortable with an NFL audience.

2. Continued trend of traditional sports being represented on esports platforms

Many sports fans and athletes are using video games and esports as a traditional sports stopgap. “Without sports, I feel like my identity has been stolen from me,” says NBA fan Cat, 42, from North Carolina. “Not having sports to turn to right now is far more isolating than being quarantined… I’ve found myself getting into things I never thought I’d be into just to connect. I’ve been playing [sports related] video games and watching a lot of the NBA stuff they’re showing on Twitch.”

As covered in my article 5 Key Strategies Game Brands Should Follow For the “New Normal” of Gaming, video game play and streaming viewership is on the rise, breaking usage records week over week. Gaming is an outlet for individuals to gain a sense of connection, control, and creativity in this unprecedented time. This is true with athletes as well. “I’m a track athlete in college, and our team social dynamic revolves around action. Now that that is gone, we are gaming instead – mostly Rocket League,” says Dominic, 20, NYW. “It is the only way we can connect on a competitive level, period. It’s also the only way we can virtually-hang out, have a beer, and ‘watch a game’ like we are used to.”

Similarly, pro athletes are using video games as a bridge to fellow teammates and their fans. The amount of crossover of athletes who also play a video game of their sport is impressive. “The capacity of NBA players to play video games, it’s limitless! I had no idea so many of them were gamers. I knew we had a few guys, but it seems like it’s every player!” said Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks. ESPN networks will air live NBA 2K League matches throughout the 2020 season – the first official esports league operated by a U.S. professional sports league.

So while viewership for traditional esports (Overwatch, League of Legends, etc.) is still modest, we are seeing the increased utilization of traditional esports platforms (like Twitch) and video games to create content and generate new forms of participation. This raises the prospect of traditional sports making esports a growing part of their content strategy. The success and growth of sports may become more dependent on a pro team’s ability to translate and appeal to an esport audience and broadcasters providing more “video game” value in their offering.
Similarly, this may be the avenue more people use to convert to video gaming. As the traffic increases, there will be an increasing need to form “swim lanes” for esports. Sports fans continue to branch into adjacent categories like esports and streaming to remain fulfilled; they will tend to follow the path of least resistance. To get out ahead of this, Twitch just rolled out a dedicated esports directory last week, a central repository for all esports content in an effort to make it easier to find the athlete/celebrity driven content viewers are looking for.

3. Increased demand for authenticity and access

Through new approaches to competition and streaming, fans are getting a glimpse into the context of the athletes they love, and love to hate: the strategies and stories that both humanize them and add a new level of entertainment value to their careers.

NASCAR drivers, for example, are using a racing simulation platform called iRacing, in which real drivers control virtual cars from home to drive. But because it’s from their couch (rather than 200 mph around a track) we’re hearing more commentary and getting a chance to see racing through their eyes. “Drivers are Tweeting and heckling, their talking strategy. It’s a new type of entertainment. [Bubba Wallace] actually lost a sponsor by rage-quitting as a result of a crash. It’s a new era of sportsmanship,” says Jeremy 34, a NASCAR fan from Texas. Similarly, the fearless and revealing narrative of the TV show, “The Last Dance,” allowed fans to have a taste for raw, honest, and contextualized content. Even the NFL draft, with players at home with their families instead of in the formality of Madison Square Gardens, provided a fresh and authentic perspective.

Through candid and casual at-home game play, behind the scenes access, conversational style narratives, etc., we are finally getting a chance to see the man or woman behind the player. It would be shortsighted to retreat from this new level of access that fans have been awarded. Rawness and authenticity is what sports fans crave (what they’ve always craved). And, what is more authentic and entertaining than broadcasters and athletes who are unafraid to put themselves out there live and unfiltered?

4. Adoption of an immersive in-home audio experience

With stadiums and arenas closed and attendance reduced for the foreseeable future, only a fraction of sports viewing will be on location. Fans will be watching from their couches while athletes play in energetically and acoustically dead environments. If we can’t go to the stadium, technology will need to bring the stadium experience to us.

Sound has always been a critical component of what makes a live event come alive. Yet the sound experience of home viewing has historically been sub-standard. “A two-dimensional display screen can only go so far, and we lose so much when recreating a rich three-dimensional experience. Audio, however, is a way to inject dimensionality and provide a more authentic experience,” says Russ Berger, an industry leading acoustician and broadcast facility designer.” Putting a game into the context of its environment with auditory techniques that trigger spatial relationships of dimension, sense of volume, and direction won’t replace the live experience, but will add needed neurological texture and authenticity to support the virtual programming.

While sports leagues like the NBA have invested millions over the years trying to produce live content in virtual reality (VR), the production content creation and in-home hardware setups are still a long way away. There are, however, several manufacturers of production equipment and software (like Dolby’s Atmos object-oriented production process) that already provide sophisticated tools to capture, create and produce immersive audio content. Additionally, with a quiet stadium comes acoustical opportunities to mic the full game play experience, making for an even richer at home experience. And while players, coaches, and team owners are justified in their concerns over being mic’d during live events – a concern realized a month ago when prominent NASCAR driver lost his job over a racial slur during virtual iRacing event – finding a sweet spot of player and sideline access to collect game context would add a level of depth of narrative that would take sports broadcast and fandom to a new level.

5. Seamless integration and handshaking of super fan-tech

We have moved into the age where we can multitask our technology for a much richer live game experience. Having access to multiple screens and devices during game day has been common for some time, but sports fans have become increasingly digital proficient and reliant during this period of sheltering in place. As live sports are re-introduced, there is likely to be an increased expectation for digital connection and the integration of that into the live game experience. “I have been able to stay connected by using Zoom, FaceTime, and Netflix Party with my family and friends during quarantine. This has actually made us a lot closer,” said Laura 31, a bi-coastal sports fan from VA and CA. “I expect to continue doing more and more things together digitally….I don’t play video games, but my sister is big into them. It seems like there is a lot of things she can do with her Xbox that could be cool for watching sports. I would totally get a console if it meant I could connect with her over an NFL game – have the video, voice, stats I want, everything right there.”

The ability to streamline, integrate, and “dashboard” live experiences is key. In the future perhaps we’ll see game-day-customized Twitter, Reddit, Facebook Groups sub-feeds with curated Twitch and fantasy-streaming, while “Partying” or Zooming in friends in a virtual sports-bar-like experience. Platforms that have historically been used for video games and esports, like Twitch and Discord, will continue to see more sports fans reaching for them due to their usability and integration. This month Facebook launched a gaming app designed for creating and watching live gameplay. The Go Live feature directly takes on dominant game streaming players with Twitch (Amazon) and YouTube (Google) feeding the increased desire to turn passive consumption of entertainment into interactive and communal experiences. The applications for sports broadcasters and franchises have huge potential.

The pandemic presents new innovation opportunities for sports marketers and media companies alike

Sports fans are going to continue to look to athletes for entertainment, on and off “the field,” in new ways. Athletes themselves will be increasingly using platforms (gaming included) to create new experiences to get closer to their fans. While mid-20th century technology has granted us spectator rights to the sports we love over the years, in many ways it has also inadvertently barred us from the playing field. Current media, entertainment, and tech companies now have a rare opportunity to experiment on a captive, hungry, and more-forgiving-than-usual audience that understands the playing field may be off limits for good.

While “couched,” fans demand to remain a part of the action. It is up to franchise owners, coaches, players, and technology to take a lesson from this on-turf sports hiatus and build a multi-modal sports experience of the future.

Maru/Matchbox is keeping a finger on the pulse of how businesses and consumers are managing in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Be sure to visit our COVID-19 research hub for more insights.

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