By John McCarthy, Opinion editor

March 19, 2020 | 10 min read

What is the purpose of a sports marketer when there are no sports around to market? With Covid-19 spreading around the globe, and live action being postponed to safeguard the wellbeing of fans, this is a question some are having to now contemplate.

The Uefa Champions League and the Europa League have just been postponed for a month, the Premier League is on ice. Euro 2020 is now Euro 2021 and the Japan is now longer so passionate about hosting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. In the US, the NBA, NHL and MLS have stalled. Organisers are unsure if they can, or should, finish their seasons.

The idea of closed-door fixtures has been floated, but in a testimony to sports’ strength of engagement, thousands of fans gathered last week outside a Champion’s League fixture, posing a severe risk to the public health. Then athletes started falling ill. Broadcast schedules around the globe have emptied at a time when half of the NBA’s annual $9bn revenue comes from TV rights. The Premier League was due to draw in £9.2bn from global broadcast between 2019 and 2022. England's top tier is now not alone in struggling to fulfill its commitment to rights holders.

A senior marketer at a national football association told The Drum that the disruption is unprecedented and perhaps only comparable to the global disruption caused by the September 11 attacks. Just as then, sports has taken a backseat, at a time when fans arguably need it most.

Global sports sponsorships were valued at £35bn in 2019. The outlook for 2020 is less bright and the knock-on effects of postponements next season remain to be seen.

Amid this, sports marketers are being forced to adapt and protect their clients. The Drum questioned them about their hopes and fears over the coming months, where livelihoods and businesses will be on the line.

Simon Dent, founder of independent sports creative agency Dark Horses, was sitting in his London office alone when approached for insight earlier this week. His staff were working from home. “Everything's been canceled. We are still in a period of unknown,” he said.

A scheduled shoot with a Champions League sponsor had been stalled since the tournament’s final leg wasn’t yet scheduled. Also, with lockdowns being put in place across Europe it the agency was finding it harder to gather staff.

He was at his desk monitoring the situation, awaiting guidance from Uefa. Now the Champion’s League is tentatively scheduled for one month later, Dent and co have to be agile in developing their work for the final legs of the tournament (whatever form it takes).

“What’s really reassuring at the moment is no one is panicking. We’re having really healthy conversations with rights holders.

"Because it's such a unique and unpredictable situation there's a lot of sympathy and empathy in all conversations now. But if brands start to lose what they paid for, that will lead to friction, and that's where it'll get quite interesting.”

What to do?

Joel Seymour Hyde is head of sports and entertainment marketing Octagon UK. He favours delays over cancellations. Sports sponsorships tend to ramp-up around the final stages, without these playoffs, there are little marketing payoffs.

“With no live product, the ability to create anything was quite clearly limited and kind of pointless. So we have to move to problem-solving mode for the client, adapting or creating briefs that solve problems.

The other side of the coin is that the industry has been afforded an unexpected respite during what should be the busiest time of a sports marketers' calendar. It’s a good time to experiment and find out where the eyeballs are going.

Seymour Hyde said: “It's quite easy to get lost in the doom and gloom but we ask how we can use creativity to solve the problem. If the brand position is about bringing people together, and we can’t do it in the real world, how do we do it in the virtual world or elsewhere?”

He suggested agencies and brands use the downtime to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing work.

Ups and downs

Organisers are exploring new ways to generate impressions and reach for sponsors in lieu of live sports. The BBC’s Match of the Day was replaced by the much-maligned comedy Mrs Brown’s Boys last Saturday, Twitter was less-than-kind to the well-meaning Irish mammy.

A conversation was inspired in the absence of Linekar and co. Could there be a gold rush for archive football rights in the coming weeks? There’s a hunger among England fans to see Euro 96 on TV again, could a modern sponsor help deliver this?

Steve Martin, global chief executive of M&CSaatchi Sport & Entertainment says he has never seen such disruption to the industry. “No one could say that they were prepared for this in any way [I informed him no one did]. The audiences have left live moments but they still live and breathe the sport online.

“They still want to be engaged in some way across the sport that they love and they're passionate about, and probably going to have more time online than ever before.”

He agrees that archive material could play a part. Martin has been in discussions to donate rights to good causes, to help fund the fightback against the illness. The optics of a brand providing nostalgic entertainment during tough times in aid of a good cause are favourable.

Tim Crow, a sports marketing consultant, outlined that experience partners will be hardest hit now any pre-arranged experiences are very unlikely to feature fans.

“Anything involving experiential and hospitality packages. Anything that involves large scale movement of people for face-to-face stuff. All bets are off. I mean, I feel incredibly sorry for them.”

Any brands that planned to launch specially-branded packaging around the sports fixtures will feel the bite too. For example, what even happens to official beer consumption when the tournament’s delayed and people are self-isolating?

With the physical in doubt, be it event, experience and retail, the digital realm’s where we’ll see more activity than before.

Crow suggests that eSports will be minimally affected. Sports can even use their eSports proxies to simulate the conclusion of leagues; many well already dabbling in gaming. This may become a priority. We may say more footballers playing out the rest of the season on the Fifa video game.

Seymour Hyde has seen “more eSports briefs in the last week and a half than over the rest of the year,” but is skeptical it finds that large audience that no longer has live sports.

What comes next?

If the events are delivered, the conversation will be around whether brands recouped enough value. In multi-season deals, organisers can make up the deficit.

Upon the non-delivery of these events, expect a legal war around the definition of 'force majeure', a term embedded in most sponsorship contracts. Is a pandemic an act of God? Some of the marketers I quizzed will be banking on that not being the case. Organisers will hope they are covered, they will also not want to risk long-lasting partnerships.

As for the future, Dent notes how the virus showed us that “nothing is sacred”. Many of the rigid structures and norms that were in place are now being questioned. "Uefa has to be quite bold. This unique situation is going to call for that."

Meanwhile, Martin ends on a positive not, urging marketers to prepare for the triumphant return of sports, likely during a saturated window later in 2020.

“We're going to see an incredible celebration of humanity coming out the other side. This means even more activation, more creativity. When sport comes back, it'll come back with such a bang and audiences will be huge.”

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