OLD: Sport needs a digital reboot to survive the Coronavirus

Note: this page has been updated: please visit the homepage and navigate from there

Coronavirus’ impact on sport will be more profound than anything we have seen in our lifetimes. All sports businesses will need to adapt to survive. To re-imagine your sport, you need the help of people who understand what you do and who are resourceful, connected and accustomed to inventing the future. Digital people.

I’ve spent 25 years creating or re-imagining sports businesses through digital. Use this guide, which will be regularly updated with industry insight, to help you on your journey. Then let me know how I can help, including who I can connect you with (a lot of people available to video conference from home at the moment), or whether I can recommend agencies I have worked with.

I’m running regular interactive webinars on the Coronavirus, sport and digital starting on Tuesday 7th April where, with some special guests, I will take a look at how digital people running major events, including the Olympics, are coping with change. Sign up here (you can also watch on demand).

Please share your thoughts and feedback – or add a comment at the bottom.

This guide is divided into four sections: context, what’s happening in sport right now, what’s next and the future of sport.

Short on time? These are the key sport-related takeaways:

Where is sport right now?

  • Sport is on hiatus and has gone fully digital.
  • From a short term commercial perspective, cancellation is the worst option for everyone but if your event falls any time before the autumn of 2020 it may be inevitable. That window may extend deep into 2021.

What’s next for sport?

  • Times are going to get tough. But let’s be clear, tough talk is cheap. Sport is not going away. People still value and enjoy sport. It’s part of our culture. Money and even health will not stand in the way of that.
  • There will be casualties among professional sports clubs and bodies. The survival, in some cases, of the least unfit. Professional sport will come back. There will still be opportunities to make money, just less of it.
  • However, some world famous athletes may finally take the opportunity during the hiatus to leverage their extraordinary individual reach, generate new content, create new formats and reshape the industry and their place and importance in it.
  • Coronavirus will not dampen the changes we are seeing in consumer habits, attention and technology, it will accelerate them. Digital will be at the heart of that change, no longer as a nice to have but as the primary way sport is delivered, consumed and talked about.
  • The power of sports marketing to deliver brand awareness and brand perception and a measured impact on sales is often discussed. It’s rarely proven. This must now change.
  • A properly managed, addressable digital audience can provide direct value to rights holders as well as critical leverage in broadcast and sponsor negotiations and valuations.

The future of sport:

  • Sports rights holders will have to get a proper grip of their digital potential, double down on relationships with existing fans, attract, engage and activate every potential digital fan, maximise digital returns from fans and sponsors and reduce dependence on broadcast deals.
  • A new business model, beyond the rights fee, with always-on digital content, audience growth and engagement and data at its heart driving direct and indirect value from digital transactions with fans may emerge. The hiatus is a great opportunity for rights holders and teams to try it out and get good at it.
  • Being more digital alone isn’t enough. We need to sort out all the things sport is generally bad at including governance, coordination between stakeholders, alignment of business objectives and having a defined purpose.
  • The sports industry lacks self-awareness. We are incredibly bad at thinking about what sport, especially our favourite sport, is actually for and why people like it. After Coronavirus has done its damage, professional sport will have to build trust and prove its value to the world. 
  • The legacy of Coronavirus is likely to include the powerful effect of the notion of sacrifice – giving up something however small for the greater good, large-scale civic engagement, a greater sense of our mutual dependence, respect for health workers and greater empathy with loss. 
  • We may also witness greater acceptance for leadership roles for women (who comprise over 60% of entry level healthcare workers), more appreciation for the great outdoors, nature, open spaces, and simple pleasures.
  • For sport this will certainly mean our great events can act as a release valve for a world emerging from one of the grimmest periods in our collective history. But also more focus on sport that is not played primarily for money, equality of both sexes and able and disabled sport, more demand for a carefree approach to playing sport among professional sportspeople and a focus on athletes who are less “bling” and more “bring”.
  • Reinventing your sport for a changed world will be harder than simply digitising it. You need smart people who love change and hard work. People who like building stuff, who can think in multi-disciplinary ways and who are used to inventing the future. We all need to become digital people now.



There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.

Vladimir Lenin, Russian revolutionary and political theorist (and keen cyclist)

In March 2020 sport and most other human activity that we take for granted was shut down across the globe. The fate of humanity lies in the hands of healthcare workers, scientists and politicians. They face an atrocious choice: how to save lives without destroying the economies on which those lives depend.

We don’t know enough about the virus – but we do know that this is not the end, we are not facing mass extinction. However, it could be a matter of years, not weeks or months, before the virus is truly under control and many more before the world achieves economic and psychological recovery.

The point of this section is to frame the thinking that comes after it and not to offer amateur epidemiology or economics – the world has had enough of people who don’t know what they are talking about. Feel free to skip this section and get straight into the bit about sport.

The virus

  • The world is in a lockdown which could last up to eighteen months

Ive read all I want to read about the virus, get me to the sport

The science and grim maths of Coronavirus are best left to epidemiologists and statisticians. What we do know is:

  • Governments around the world have decided that without a vaccine they must forcibly isolate and lock down their populations.
  • Immunity, critical care, new treatments, testing will all be factors in determining whether lockdowns, permanent or recurring, last a few weeks or even as many as 18 months.
  • The virus is senicidal – older people will die from it at rates 10-100 greater than younger people
  • The impact will be greater in countries with less developed governance, healthcare systems and economies, the so called “fat tail”.

It is unclear how, once the infected and recovered have been identified, they may be able to freely circulate in society and what tensions that may give rise to.

The economy

  • Coronavirus’ short, medium and long term economic effects will be more profound than anything we have seen in our lifetimes
  • The balance of power between China and America may shift, while globalisation as we know it may unravel

Enough about money, get me to the sport

Some of the economic impacts of the virus will be familiar from previous shocks and market collapses – including, of course, the recent downturn of 2008. That means a a decline in spending, collapse of consumer confidence, new priorities for voluntary spend, bankruptcies, unemployment, debt.

But this downturn threatens to be much uglier, longer and more profound than anything that has come in our lifetimes – if you are lucky enough not to live in a war torn country. People are literally locked in so stuff is not available to buy and people are not available to buy it – the “human credit crunch”.

The longer this continues the more the interdependence of our economies and globalisation itself may may unravel leading to a fundamental shift in the very nature of the global economy and distributed, localised supply chains.

A quick turnaround even in the most optimistic scenarios seems unlikely. Massive bail outs are being enacted by every government and according to the Economist may amount to 23% of leading economies’ GDP. The legacy will be an unsustainable debt mountain that falls on younger members of society who are also the least affluent – it may have to be written off altogether. If not, taxes will rise.

China is vying with America to be the world’s trusted partner in a crisis, boosting its global image by exporting Coronoavirus medical supplies and health workers and aiming to become an economic safe haven. America has been slow to act and its President seems uniquely ill-equipped to deal with an enemy that can’t read Tweets. China has the advantage of strong domestic demand and levels of household saving and, currently at least, consumer optimism. America may yet bounce back but its valuation premium is at risk.

Watching these two superpowers vying not to be top of the Coronavirus table is going to be this summer’s goulish spectator sport (America has just taken the lead). There will be cheating, and a lot of it, but not nearly enough drugs.

For businesses a downturn means a flight to quality, a squeeze on cash, abandonment of capital spend and concerns over marketing. But it is also a time of opportunity. Google and PayPal weathered the dot-com bust and AirBnB, Square and Stripe were founded in the wake of the crisis of 2008. Constraints focus the mind and provide fertile ground for creativity.

Our way of life

  • The virus will directly affect millions of people and disease and the fear of death will cause a realignment of values and priorities

The short term effects Coronavirus on how we think and act are obvious:

  • more time spent at home (willingly or not), more time spent consuming news, streaming, messaging, gaming and video conferencing
  • delaying or cancelling purchases altogether
  • worry, confusion and stress

Global Web Index is producing regular and excellent reports on global consumer sentiment should you wish to track it.

The wider implications of the fight to defeat the virus are not so easy to predict.

State control over our lives will expand of necessity. This will have a huge impact on public trust in institutions and organisations, including sport institutions and organisations.

The good stuff is more investment, more services and more support. While the current bail out is more of a rescue than a levelling up it will likely lead to a change in our collective values and priorities: a renewed sense of common purpose and appreciation of the value of mutual self-help. A third of the UK workforce have been designated as Key Workers demonstrating how mutually dependent we already are.

In the west after the first and second world wars expansion of the voting franchise, introduction of more women to the workforce, better education, unemployment and health insurance and improving technology were a key part of economic recovery. In the east the strength of collectivism may be a key driver and have lessons for the wider world.

One section of our workforce, the health workers, will be universally lauded as our new heroes. And these heroes are mainly female. In the future we may all have to take our turns as health workers in the community.

The bad stuff is more surveillance, more controls and less liberty. We are already in voluntary lockdown. Governments may require telecoms and technology companies to make individual network graphs and location data available to public health authorities for every infected individual identified. We may also see rifts in society between have and have nots (and in the short term between infected and uninfected or infected and recovered) deepen further.

Once our freedoms have been taken away, how will we get them back?

We are more connected than ever and yet forcibly living apart. Will we go back to how things were? And will we want to? 

Where is sport right now?

  • Sport is on hiatus and has gone fully digital

Enough about now, what’s next?

At the end of 2019 we were looking forward to the battle for team tennis between the ATP and ITF, Tokyo 2020, Euro 2020, the Ryder Cup and the Hundred, Liverpool’s EPL title race, New NFL stadia, the XFL and getting angry about VAR. How things changed.

The growth of streaming, the growing importance of the FAANGs (the big tech companies) in the media rights landscape, the demand for behind the scenes content, Saudi Arabian investment in sport, and the power of one-off streamed specials like Logan Paul vs KSI however may be themes that may grow, not retract. Disruption is on its way but some of it may look familiar.

Sport short term: Cancellations

Every major sporting event and league has been postponed for the foreseeable future or outright cancelled. This includes, at last, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Some events have announced new dates already – Euro 2020 will take place on the same dates in 2021 and the French Open have announced, ambitiously, a new date in September. The J League has already decided that no teams will be relegated this season, should it ever restart.

An excellent and up to date resource for the the current state of cancellations is Snavie

Sport short term: Business operations

  • Every contract is under review and every client relationship will be revisited.
  • Cancellation is the worst option for everyone but if your event falls any time before the autumn of 2020 it may be inevitable. 

A lot of the best minds in sport will now be fully focused on contracts, clients and colleagues.

Nothing is more important than the health and welfare of your employees. If you’re a senior manager or C-level executive and you’ve read this far and haven’t made or been party to a plan to look after your employees please stop here and come back when you have.

Every contract will be under review and every client relationship will be revisited. Coronavirus will be the bad guy because only “force majeure” can make the best of a messy exit from obligations (you might find this force majeure flow chart (a download) from law firm Lewis Silkin useful). The basic test will be: if business could have gone on, force majeure or no, grounds for compensation will be diminished.

Any season or sale cycle that is underway or planned in the next three years will be significantly impacted. Already initial conversations about playing sport behind closed doors have moved on either because practically games in the near term seem improbable or, worse, distasteful.

Life first. Damn it. Everything has to be moved to the next season. It is time for realism, gentlemen. This is the plague

Brescia president Massimo Cellino in Yahoo News March 22nd

Adam Silver of the NBA, always ahead of the game, has floated the idea of a charity game based on testing. Speaking to Rachel Nichols he said: “One of the things we’ve been talking about: Are there conditions in which a group of players could compete? Maybe it’s for a giant fundraiser or just for the good of the people.”

A game played under those circumstances could take place between players who were tested, quarantined and isolated. The NFL on a parallel track have hinted at linking testing to contracts. This porn industry approach to athlete participation may prove to have scientific, practical and ethical loop holes.

A number of broadcasters are discussing delayed payments or reimbursement. Nent, the Nordic broadcaster, was one of the first to call for compensation while simultaneously reducing package prices. Sky in the UK is offering customers the right to suspend their Sky Sports packages without losing access to the non-live content its channels are currently showing.

Equally rights holders will be keen to remind broadcasters of their obligations should rights holders find a way to postpone and reschedule events or play them behind closed doors. From a short term commercial perspective cancellation is the worst option for rights holders as it likely triggers compensation clauses in contracts. There is still dilution of product risk and potential for claims should matches take place at strange times or in crowd-free venues.

Sponsors and licencees will have had to cancel entertainment and hospitality as well as plans for product and service delivery whether delivered as value to rights holders in VIK or delivered as part of commercial rights.

On a more prosaic level supply chains breakdown will affect sporting equipment, food and beverage supply, and transportation.

Intangible services may also have an impact – the boss of an Indian IT outsourcer told me that he thinks no more than 40% of his workforce can work from home given the undersupply of both broadband and laptops in the Indian market and that NASSCOM, the trade association of the Indian IT industry may not prioritse support for businesses that do not serve key industries.


Sport short term: Digital substitution

In an excellent and eloquent piece for SportsPro Eoin Connolly pithily explains how sport has reacted to the early days of lockdown:

Already, sports media, clubs and leagues are exploring ways of staying relevant, digitally, in their enforced hiatus. Some are dipping into the archives to relive old experiences, others tinkering with interactive challenges or crowdsourcing content. Athletes are showing glimpses of their own socially distanced lives.

This may be a moment where esports leagues and Peloton and Zwift to gain mainstream recognition. But existing organisations will be working hard to make the most of their digital networks.

Eoin Connolly: What is sport for in the age of coronavirus? March 19 2020

F1 and Nascar have already held virtual races featuring real drivers. La Liga hosted an esports FIFA tournament with current players from 18 of the league’s teams taking part streamed live on Twitch with a cumulative audience of 1 million. British Cycling and Zwift have partnered to create a series of online workouts and races featuring elite athletes. Verizon in the US reported an 75% increase in gaming traffic but the beneficiaries seem to have been traditional video games, where fighting and fantasy formats dominate, rather than simulation esports.

Rights holders have been unlocking their OTT services opening their archives for fans on free trial. Both the NFL and NBA are providing complimentary access to fans to watch past games, highlights, and documentaries via their respective OTT services, NBA League Pass and NFL Game Pass until Mid April and the end of May respectively. UEFA will be showing classic matches from their club and national archives six days a week, via their OTT Service UEFA.tv.

This excellent presentation on immediate marketing tactics from BBH London is worth your time – and easy to digest. It includes these thought starters on customer needs and mindsets for marketers and many examples of marketing creative designed to address them, they should be great stimulus for content ideas:

In Brazil Esporte Interativo – the world’s biggest sports page on Facebook is using its huge reach to communicate Coronavirus information more effectively than any other Brazilian media channel according to Comscore (h/t Turner digital boss Fabio):

It’s important in the rush to publish to think about tone. Especially if you have fans in Italy, New York or Wuhan. Test your content ideas with people who have been impacted directly by the virus and who may have a different perspective from you.

What’s next for sports?

Medium term

  • Sport is not going away. People still value and enjoy sport. It’s part of our culture. Money and even health will not stand in the way of that.
  • Professional sport will come back. There will be opportunities to make money, just less of it.

The enthusiasm of the industry to find cheap and cheerful ways of filling the gap in the near term mask some bigger problems looming medium (and long) term.

Let’s be clear, tough talk is cheap. Sport whether professional, amateur or recreational (and its easy, and foolish, to conflate those three categories) is not going away. People still value and enjoy watching and playing sport at all levels. It’s part of our weekly and often daily routine. It’s part of our culture. Money and even health will not stand in the way of that.

But sport’s role and purpose will, can and should change: more on this later

Companies naturally will look to increase liquidity as cash will be king, revenue uncertain and marketeers will be looking for value. That will create downward pressure on media and sponsorship fees.

The pattern from 2008 may be repeated but with some deeper cuts. An excellent summary of advertisers in the US by category on US TV is here and a graph on the changes between 2008 and 2009 is below. We can expect more deals like the one just concluded between Hockey Australia and Fortescue metals

Further pressure will come from broadcasters who depend on not only sponsors but carriage fees and retransmission fees or subscribers. In the US a lack of sports content means the prospect of an accelerated trend of cord cutting

While advertisers and agencies scramble for slots to fill the gaps the challenge is not just whether appetite to pay for and produce sports programming will return. Many commercial networks and even streaming challengers who are heavily leveraged may not recover.

Unsuprisingly for a business lead by a leader as decisive as Carolyn McCall ITV in the UK has already announced a 300m GBP cut in programming budget and cancellation of dividend.

The Warren Buffet maxim: “You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out” applies.

Rights fees and obligations can be put on hold but debt is the silent killer.

A former employee of one of the biggest sports agencies told me that even before Coronavirus he was expected to factor an internal discount rate of 14% to achieve internal rate of return and service debt into costing any project.

Another in a sportswear business was facing supply chain collapse and the prospect of deep discounting especially in summer stock and the very real threat of a surging Nike forcing the rest of the industry into consolidation.

Mediapro has made 1,200 temporary layoffs. Appetite for pending rights deals, especially CBS/NFL, Sky Deutschland/Bundesliga, will weaken. Sinclair’s purchase of Regional Sports Networks from Disney now looks a bad bet. Narrow subscription offers like DAZN and ESPN Plus may be under pressure and in general OTT models without deep pockets and short runways to profitability will struggle. 

We can be pretty sure that public service broadcasters as well as Amazon, Youtube, Disney, Apple and probably Netflix will be there to pick up the pieces when other networks fail and right holders will be furiously sending messages (or imessages, or Facebook messenger messages) to their counterparts.

Social platforms traffic is booming right now. They will welcome any rights holders wanting to stream content with open arms, but are unlikely to want to pay for the privilege.

Salary cuts are inevitable, as well as job losses.

The size of many professional sports’ teams salary bills relative to other outgoings is well known. Some, like these four Premiership Rugby clubs have announced 25% pay cuts for playing staff already while senior staff at the NBA are taking a 20% pay cut, Juventus players have taken a pay freeze and even the mighty Barcelona is not immune.

Athletes find themselves in an interesting position. Some leagues and sports may find themselves able to reintroduce salary caps and other labour constraints and oblige players to take pay cuts. Others may find themselves even more beholden to the power of talent that is learning to create content on its own and will only get better at it in the coming months while they work, and we watch, from home.

Many athletes already have bigger reach than the teams and rights holders they play for. If they can parlay that into new content types and formats while sport lies fallow that disparity will grow further and money will follow.  As a leading executive at a social media company told me top athletes have an opportunity to grab a larger share of the economic pie, shape the nature of sports business and fan behaviour, and wield more leverage in negotiations across the board.

Some famous teams will go bust, others will seek new owners and there will be some surprise survivors – a question in some leagues of the survival of the least unfit.

Hearteningly some Premiership clubs such as Brighton and Manchester Utd. have offered to carry on paying matchday staff. Other teams may not be able to.

Fewer host cities will be willing to bid for and stage major events . Government funding will dry up and tax breaks for sports organisations may be at risk (Pro tip: if you want to know how much many top US sports executives are (or were) paid the NFL, NHL and PGA among others have charitable status and declare these details in full via 501(c) declarations which you can find easily on Guidestar.com, I wrote about in 2014)

Government money is the engine of the event sector. Those in charge of the public purse will allocate funds to try to help. This process is inexact and unreliable and it will make some of us angry

Robert Datnow of the Sports Consultancy writing in Sportspro: Ten truths for the sports industry

In the UK demand for the lottery has collapsed and with it potentially the source of 69% of British Olympic athletes funding

Event organisers may be more phlegmatic than most. Games and big events are in the business of planning and tend to have very strong contingency and business continuity planning.

As part of my research for this guide I re-read the London 2012 incident communications handbook which includes 108 pages of protocols and pre-scripted messages just for communications. And yes, pandemics were included. The wider IT plan even included the risk of the earth being hit by a solar flare

Nonetheless there will be less events and those that are in planning may be more modest.

Be in no doubt, professional sport will go on. Sports people of all types will have opportunities to make money, just less of it. Professional sport will have to be cheaper and more humble. And it may look very different.

Long term

  • The changes we are seeing in consumer habits and attention and technology will accelerate. Digital will be at the heart of that change no longer as nice to have but as the primary way sport is delivered, consumed and talked about.
  • Digital will be essential to the very existence of professional sport and it’s time to get our collective heads around what that looks like.

Now is the time to think really hard about your business, its purpose, people and customers. The good news is that if you are working from home, as most of us now are, and if you stay healthy you have something precious to work with. Time.

The future of sports

Normally when sports people talk about the future of sports we talk about changing consumer habits, competition for attention and technology. And a lot about digital.

We occasionally throw in some economic analysis and a smattering of thoughts about climate change and global instability.

We never talk about comets, Californian calderas or solar flares – or pandemics.

Many of us are probably thinking how our sports can pivot during or immediately after Coronavirus. Will sports that have social distancing in their DNA such as golf and tennis thrive? How about snooker and pool? Does your sport need a crowd? Can your athletes prepare and train in isolation? In France horse racing barely stopped throughout the second world war, can it carry on? Is Peloton hiring?

But there is a bigger picture beyond short term winners and losers. The extraordinary fallout from Coronavirus will not dampen the conversation about consumer habits and attention and technology, if anything it should accelerate it. Digital will be at the heart of that conversation no longer as nice to have but as the new modus operandi.

Digital will be essential to the very existence of professional sport and it’s time to get our collective heads around what that looks like.

Predicting the (digital) future

When I first started working as “head of new media” at London 2012 in 2006 I was regularly asked how I could possibly predict what technologies would be available and in use in six years time.

It didn’t stop me trying. We created a “new media roadmap” in 2007 in the form of a two metre long poster that we would throw out on the floor in front of potential sponsors

Salvation came in the form of the Everett Rogers diffusion of innovation curve.

Developed in the 1950s to explain the slow adoption of new varieties of seed corn its main finding is that it takes 7 years for an innovation to reach majority adoption from the time of first release into the market.

This was the time it took in mature media markets for the majority of users to switch to colour TVs, touch screen phones and from 2g to 3g to 4g. Not much has changed. 5g is already “here” but in 2021, based on pre-Coronavirus data, only 10% of phones sold will be 5G  capable.

Everett Rogers diffusion of innovation curve

However this relatively slow pace of change feels hard to believe. The way consumers use and adapt existing technology can change quickly whether because of the introduction of new fashions, new software or, as is currently the case, extraordinary new social rules and regulations.

Data: Sensortower, h/t Exponential view Instagram

The world was already on course to be smartphone enabled if not always bandwidth rich

Smartphone penetration 2017 vs 2022

Audiences were already increasing consumption of digital media at annual rate of 11% driving media minutes up more than 25% over ten years:

Zenith optimedia global media minutes estimate 2019

Likewise ad spend was already migrating to digital platforms, fast

emarketer global ad spend 2019

Digital ad spend in China, the UK and Norway is already 60% of all spend and other countries are expected to follow this trend imminently

Yet sport, even or maybe especially at top level, has not been ahead of these trends. Why?

Sport has been one of the most attractive properties for broadcasters. TV delivers for sport, and vice versa. Rights holders with properties big enough to attract TV deals have been through an extraordinary and prolonged purple patch. Blue chip properties such as the Champions League have continued to generate increasing returns.

But broadcasters were already being challenged by changes in viewing behaviour, migration of advertising to online (where it goes mainly to Google and Facebook and not to video) and reduced willingness to pay. Coronavirus will accelerate those trends aggressively.

Sponsors value digital audiences, perhaps even more than broadcasters. The focus of most sponsor activation is digital. Most sponsors are looking for opportunities to cut through in digital and co-create content with rights holders.

But in truth very few properties actively value digital exposure in their commercial sponsorship sales process (this is a polite understatement) and it is generally not a key driver of price. The power of sports marketing to deliver brand awareness and brand perception and a measured impact on sales is often discussed. It’s rarely proven.

Only in ticketing, betting and retail can it be truly said that sport is “digital first”.

This must change.

Digital can deliver direct, broad and measurable audience engagement, and (yes) a clear link to sales.

A properly managed, addressable digital audience can provide direct value to rights holders as well as critical leverage in broadcast and sponsor negotiations and valuations.

Sports rights holders will have to get a proper grip of their digital potential and:

  • double down on relationships with existing fans. The more you know about them, what they’re doing and how they’re thinking, the better you can cater for them.
  • attract, engage and activate every potential digital fan. Through search, through social, through ad networks.
  • build digital products which reach fans wherever they are. And a data platform that you control which manages them all in one place.
  • maximise digital returns from fans and sponsors and reduce dependence on broadcast deals

Behind all this is performance data. There’s a lot of data around but most likely not enough of the right people in your business are looking at it, or using it, properly.

There is potential for a new business model, beyond the rights fee, with always-on digital content, audience growth and engagement and data at its heart which drives direct and indirect value from a large range of primarily digital transactions with fans: advertising, sponsorship, subscriptions, tickets, merchandise, betting, micropayments and so on.

Digital inventory is cheap and plentiful and dominated by Google and Facebook. The tough challenge is driving direct digital revenue from fans in every country that you can find them at price points that make sense.

The hiatus is a great opportunity for rights holders and teams to get really good at this so they are ready when live sport returns to whatever normal looks like after Coronavirus.

In truth you can’t get a grip on all this without sorting out all the things sport is generally bad at:

  • alignment between organisational business objectives and priorities and digital delivery
  • clear governance  and coordination between stakeholders
  • delivery of digital as part of services delivered to the end users not a stand alone projects or siloed departments
  • testing and retest everything you create before during and after you create it, with real users

And even the best run, best organised sports businesses may struggle without a clear vision and mission or simply put, a purpose.

The purpose of sport

  • Professional sports do not have clearly defined purpose. They need one

In my experience the sports industry lack self awareness. We are incredibly bad at thinking about what sport, especially our favourite sport (which is not always the one we work in), is for and why people like it.

Too often our attitude is that if we can stage the best version of the sport we love then, simply put, what’s not to like? Build it and they will come. And mostly that approach magically works, just like the movies.

“If you build it, he will come” Kevin Costner in Field of Dreams

That’s not to say sports don’t have “vision” and “mission statements” and acknowledged sets of “values”. LOCOG (the organisation that ran the London 2012 Games) had a vision that was “to use the power of the Games to inspire change”. This was “pursued” through the “values”:

  • Inspiration
  • Openness
  • Respect
  • Teamwork
  • Delivery
  • Distinctive

Worthy. Vague. Impossible to measure. And live by let alone remember.

A consultant I worked with on a digital project for a major sports brand decided that the easiest way to get past the “purpose” question in any discussion about business objectives was not to waste time seeking guidance from senior management. He just created the default fallback: “stage sport event, deliver eyeballs, make money, fund more sport, stage more sport event”.

Again, it works and may work again. Especially in the good times.

But our lack of examined purpose has left sport as an industry vulnerable. We were already ill-equipped to face the threat of competition for attention from things other than sport.

  • The average age of TV audiences for sport has been north of 45 for over a decade.
  • We pat ourselves on the back for piggybacking the reach of social networks without properly thinking through what they will do for our business even though they are well aware what we do for them.
  • We mistakenly believe that deep relationships with communities who love to play and watch our sport, relationships often built up in days before we were even working in the sport, mean inevitable business success.

But now we face an actual existential threat greater than fortnite or Netflix or tiktok, more worrying than being seen as a bit boring, staid or unfashionable.

We may have to rethink everything. Work, education, how we communicate, what community means, who we trust, what we need to survive and what gives us joy.

After Coronavirus has done its damage professional sport will have to prove its value to the world. To paraphrase JFK: what can sport do for its fans in a changed world?

The legacy of Coronavirus is likely to be:

  • the powerful effect of the notion of sacrifice – give up something however small for the greater good
  • huge civic engagement which we are seeing already in the call for volunteers in the UK and US
  • a greater sense of our mutual dependence, at the very least within our own countries
  • greater empathy with loss. Even if you aren’t touched by the disease or death of a loved one you will all know the stories of people who have been
  • a renewed respect for healthcare workers and the healthcare sector

And possibly also:

  • a heightened acceptance for leadership roles for women in society (who comprise over 60% of entry level healthcare workers)
  • a greater appreciation for the great outdoors, nature and open spaces
  • a greater appreciation for simple pleasures
  • “a less achievement focused, less competitive, less judgmental world and…more social, family & community focused lives” Chris Ward, author of xxx

This suggests, for sport:

  • the potential for sporting events to act as a release valve for a worried and chastened world emerging from one of the grimmest periods in our collective history.
  • more focus on sport that is not played primarily for money
  • a demand for a celebratory, even carefree, approach to playing sport in professional sportspeople who instinctively understand pain of loss. Like the brilliant, cavalier, Australian cricketer Keith Miller who could draw on personal experience as a fighter pilot when explaining to journalist that “cricket isn’t pressure, pressure is a Messerschmitt up your arse”
  • a continuation of the current trend for sport audiences to value strong personalities and fame more than performance but where the qualities that will drive that fame will look very different, less bling and more bring.
  • rethinking how to watch together without being present in a crowd.

Most of all we have to restore trust.

According to John Barry the main lesson from the Spanish flu of 1918, in which 50 million died, was that “those in authority must retain the public’s trust” and “the way to do that is to distort nothing, to put the best face on nothing, to try to manipulate no one.”

How do we build that trust? Not by piling more warm words on top of the lukewarm ones we already have. And clearly not by deploying more VAR.

An answer may lie in thinking not about “brand values” but impact.

Charities are developing the idea of impact models which attempt to assess what benefits a charity delivers its customers. These go beyond simple commercial metrics or even numerical targets.

Children’s cancer charity Clic Sargent delivers a brilliant, annual, impact report. It also happens to be superbly executed digitally and will take you less than a minute to flick through the summary.

The report contains real life stories from the community of people it supports and addresses questions they felt the charity should answer rather than focusing only on the highlights of the year. It includes a section called “hands up we’re not perfect” (imagine that in the Sepp Blatter era) and a film of members of its executive team sharing the things they wished they’d done better last year.

Clic Sargent’s approach may be too radical for some sports organisations and the people running them. But the point isn’t really accountability (something sports governing bodies rarely like to worry about) but improvement, and continuous improvement.

Impact is something you can measure without going public should you choose.

In theory, it’s simple:

  1. Identify the benefits of what you do through research into the views of the people who care about your organisation within and without.
  2. Write up simple statements based on those benefits that your fans can agree or disagree with (scored from 1 to 5) and which you can regularly test.

For example English Heritage, a 1 million member charity that looks after 400 historic properties in England including Stonehenge (I was a Trustee until a few weeks ago), went through an exacting research process lead by marketing director Luke Whitcomb to show how its work provided a public good.

It identified 7 benefits linked to a central principle of “human connection”: escapism, gratitude, belonging, identity, achievement, legacy and personal growth. Simple statements which visitors to English Heritage sites can agree or disagree with based on the benefit such as:

  • The visit made me feel part of something bigger
  • The visit allowed me to connect with the past

Scoring responses from strongly disagree to strongly agree on a simple scale of 1 to 5 creates a performance score which is relevant and useful and better than NPS

We’re all digital people now

Those of us that have worked to deliver big global sports events world are incredulous at the difficulty of arranging meetings with professional sports organisations who aren’t available because they “have a match on”. Equally people working for sports with seasons that never end dream of having weeks and months to do nothing more than plan. 

Everyone has a planning season now.

I’ve had the great good fortune to have spent much of the last 25 years creating digital sports properties from scratch or reinventing existing ones through digital.

What I’ve learnt is that to doing digital well is about three things:

  • embracing the challenge of constant change
  • hiring high quality people
  • lots of hard work


You should note that technical skills and experience didn’t make the list. When everything is changing the ability to learn and adapt is more important than relying on what you know. When I started working at London 2012 in 2006 the iPhone, Twitter and Instagram didn’t exist, nobody had a 3G connection and more people in the UK used dial up connections than broadband.

A solid three years of planning and building for those Games was enough to fill 84 slides of hurried post Games report.

We haven’t been granted quite that long (here’s hoping) but even a few weeks are enough to properly rethink not only your digital approach but apply digital ways of thinking to everything you do.

Starting with what we know, here’s a simple model for digital.

  • Start with a purpose
  • Revisit and reshape your business objectives, and your ROI, around that purpose
  • Focus on growing your existing fan community and contactable audience by properly analysing every data point you have and segmenting your audiences according not just to how they behave but what they are worth to you based on your purpose. This can mean both direct or indirect monetary value AND strategic value.

    Be brave and give that strategic value a cash equivalent and see how that alters your reporting (Google Analytics allows you to assign a monetary value to every user action, try it).

    Investment in a customer data platform (CDP) is money well spent. You can learn a lot by asking the right questions of Google Analytics and pulling the results into Google Data Studio.
  • Build up the visibility and share of voice of your brand by creating relevant content aligned with your purpose and objectives on every available digital platform your audience or potential audience uses. Use regular data analysis and content performance scoring to pay close attention to what type and tone of content works on each platform but make sure it works for you too.

    The simple rule for content is to divide your output between hygiene content (the stuff your fans come looking for, boring but necessary) hub content (the more interesting stuff that keeps them engaged) and hero content (the stuff that reaches new audiences and takes your brand to new places).
  • Focus on increasing high quality engagements and drive repeat visits – but only among the audiences that matter and deliver value. Vanity metrics are junk.
  • Turn your unknown fans into known fans by properly managing search and using ad tools to understand who is engaging with your content on social networks and ad networks.

  • Commercialise digital audiences properly.
    • Value the digital inventory you have or could deliver through your presence on third party networks.
    • Create digital packages that include all the value sponsors and partners will expect: own channel ads; exclusive sponsored content; solus emails and newsletter inclusions; and social posts

      and others that they may not:
    • mini campaigns such as polls and quizzes (and there are plenty of cheap marketing engines out there that can support this) that can also masquerade as opportunities for data collection; digital master campaigns which incorporate all sponsors; giving sponsors the right to buy inventory across your social channels or/and all your channels at once; creating partner specific digital propositions that can live offline and online; offering ideas that span the marketing funnel from brand awareness through transaction
    • Super serve your partners with campaign planning, creative services, data and performance dashboards.
    • Go direct and be creative in finding ways to transact with your fans. Offers, discounts, bespoke merchandise even donations (there’s the value of having clear purpose again)
  • Streaming is receiving a massive boost from stay at home workers. Now is the time to think about what an OTT or cheaply produced version of your sport might really look like as a serious business proposition. Make sure in any arrangement you make, you own the customer and have access to first party data or you have a bad TV deal in all but name

Doing this right is hard but not impossible. It’s important that we also take the time we have been gifted to get this right as digital becomes systemically important there will be more, not less regulation and oversight, and higher expectations from fans.

Reinventing your sport for a changed world will be harder. There aren’t any experienced guides because no-one’s done this before.

You need smart people who love change and hard work.

People who like building stuff, who can think in multi-disciplinary ways and who are used to inventing the future.

We’re all going to be digital people now.

Some of the brightest and best are at home now (and so am I) with a bit more time on their hands and an array of video conferencing tools at their fingertips and I’d be delighted to connect you. It won’t cost you anything to have a conversation. Get in touch


Resources (please send more…)

Digital Skills for the Workplace. Online learning courses from FutureLearn and the University of Leeds, starting on March 30th and FREE. Featuring people like Meg Pickard, Kim Plowright and Tom Armitage who have 20 years plus experience and really know their stuff.

The Coronavirus tech handbook, and excellent open source resource

Sign up for Facebook’s weekly Covid Webinar here

Future Learn’s very good and quick take on the future after Coronavirus

Coronavirus resources for UK-based freelancers

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: