A few weeks ago, before the latest lockdown I went out for a long bike ride with a friend of mine. At the end of two hours of admittedly gently paced riding through the beautiful Warwickshire countryside, he turned to me and said “Well I don’t know about you Andrew but that two hours of chin-wagging has done my mental health the world of good.”
I’m sure many people saw us out on that cold Sunday morning and wrote us off as a pair of typical MAMILs (Middle-Aged Men in Lycra) out to conquer another climb, re-enact the end of a Tour de France sprint stage or maybe just try to ride off a few excess calories. But sport clearly holds something deeper than that, something about the nature of being human and our need to connect and belong.
The pandemic is impacting sport from top to bottom
From global brands right down to grassroots clubs, everyone involved in sport has been hugely impacted by the events of the last twelve months. Much of the focus has quite rightly been on the devastating financial consequences for sports organisations or the big-ticket items like the postponed 2020 Olympics. But what about those other less talked about impacts – the impacts on the people who take part professionally, as hobbyists or even just as fans? And what about those impacts that can’t be measured in purely financial terms?
For some professional sports people perhaps the impact hasn’t been altogether negative.
Analysis published by fivethirtyeight.com showed that in the first four weeks of the fan-less Premier League season an average of 3.79 goals per game were scored versus the norm of 2.72. And strikers got more accurate with 30% more shots ending up in the back of the net than the average. With similar patterns seen in American basketball and Football leagues, is it possible that fans have actually been putting off their heroes all this time?
Ultimately the biggest impact is on people
But making the discussion solely about professional sports people and the brands that they represent misses a big part of the story.
For many people sport is about spectating rather than playing but that doesn’t mean it’s a passive, one-dimensional experience. The journey to a game with friends, the pre-match meal and/or pint, the excitement of being part of a crowd, the anticipation of the next score or for some just having a reason to get out of the house all contribute to our emotional wellbeing. A big part of the sporting experience is spending time catching up with friends and that’s something that’s been denied to all of us to some extent during lockdown. What we’ve lost isn’t rational, it can’t be calculated in financial terms but all these things are a priceless part of what we get from sport.
Sporting organisations at all levels have tried to maintain a sense of participation throughout successive lockdowns. As well as the almost obligatory live-streaming of games, clubs and franchises have found ever more ingenious ways to give fans the feeling of being involved. The benefit offered by cardboard cut-outs of real fans at games or the slightly more sophisticated experience offered by NBA Ultra courtside seats is entirely intangible but ultimately highly valuable as an emotional connection between fans and the clubs they follow. And who’d have thought that fans would want to join in a team’s yoga class on-line – something offered by Liverpool FC earlier this season.
Many athletes have been using their own status as role models and influencers to make a positive difference too. BBC Sport’s ‘Stay-in, Workout’ campaign has given the likes of Tom Daley, Jade Jones and Bianca Walkden a platform to share their fitness workouts with the nation at large from the comfort of their own homes. Making the campaign social media-friendly with snackable video and encouraging viewers to create their own content has also helped them engage a younger demographic. At the same time as giving athletes a sense of purpose while major events were being postponed and canceled, it’s also had undoubted health benefits for individuals with one participant claiming that it had helped him to lose a stone in weight!
Creativity is blossoming at all levels
This sense of creativity has extended right down to the grassroots with local sports clubs stretching their activity to keep people engaged, involved and entertained. These are just a few of my favourite examples:
- A Leicestershire swimming club that set their squad the challenge of a ‘virtual’ walk around the Icelandic ring road over three weeks – all 828 miles of it!
- A cycling club who ran their own version of ‘Where’s Wally?’, sending members out solo to take a photo in an unknown location for other members to guess the place on the club’s Facebook page.
- A golf club that set their members a ‘chip challenge’ that they could do in the garden and then send in their videos as part of a club-wide competition.
- A running club replaced their weekly meet-ups with photo-based treasure hunts around their town to keep people connected and create a sense of competition.
As well as relieving the inevitable boredom of lockdown, all of these things however small or trivial they may seem have been vital in keeping people connected to their clubs and perhaps more importantly, with each other.
There are things that all of us can learn from this experience
Most importantly we can see that what people value about sport isn’t just about exercise – it extends to the whole experience for players and spectators alike. So it’s a good time for brands to re-evaluate their own purpose and to consider whether it truly matches what their followers really need. That’s something that we’ve been helping brands do over the years including governing bodies like World Triathlon and Commonwealth Sport.
But as we emerge from lockdown, whether you’re a Premier League Football Club, a global governing body or a local sports club looking forward to welcoming your members back, here are three things you should be thinking about:
- Fully understanding your purpose and the role that you fulfil for your players, participants, members and fans. What is it that they really value about what you do, or could do for them?
- Value the opportunities that your sport gives for people to engage and connect with each other. You may find that the experience at the bar is just as important as the experience of playing or watching the game.
- Keep being creative in the way that you communicate and engage. Just because things return to ‘normal’ that doesn’t mean you need to forget everything you’ve learned over the last twelve months about engaging your audiences and pushing the boundaries.
Personally, the thing I’ve missed most is my weekly pedal, chat, coffee and cake.
So, to my friends in my cycle club, I’ll say it – I’ve missed you all and I can’t wait to get back.
And to all those other sports clubs out there, big and small, remember your people need you as much as you need them, just maybe for more reasons than you thought.
Andrew Milton – Operations Director