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How Goal is adapting to a world without football fixtures

Football site Goal is having to adapt to life without football / By Mario Cuadros

What is Goal without the goals? The world’s largest football website is having to adapt to the postponement of top competitions and fixtures, which presents both editorial and commercial challenges.

But though the action on the pitch has dried up, its coverage hasn't. “While there are no matches being played, that doesn’t mean football stops," said Sam Brown, the site's English language managing editor. "Far from it.”

The lack of football fixtures, and the implications this has for teams, has proven newsworthy itself. Year on year (March) web traffic is down, but by only 8%.

Transfer rumours – always a reliable audience driver – remain. And its making use of players' housebound video content, ranging from viral toilet roll keepy-uppy clips to personal mediations on mental health and feelgood stories like former Manchester United defender Gary Neville opening his hotels to the NHS. On a sadder note, the Coronavirus-related passing of young Spanish coach Francisco Garcia is among Goal's most-read recent stories, putting football dramas into perspective.

Brown said: “Whether it’s the teams in the UK, Germany, South Africa or in any of our 37 local editorial teams, they’re all contributing to a global output. This helps to provide local insight on what’s a global crisis, such as one of our writers, Mark Doyle in Bologna, who provided a scary but fascinating window on what life is like under lockdown and the role played by football to bring people together.

The site, part of the Dazn Group, alongside OTT platform Dazn and Sporting News, is pledging to avoid sensationalist headlines (something LadBible was recently praised for by WHO). It is also driving mental health awareness and fundraisers for struggling clubs. Right now though, Brown stressed the need for fact-checking stories. In contrast to Neville's hotels for hospitals gesture, a story spread suggesting his former colleague Cristiano Ronaldo was doing the same thing. It was untrue, but numerous titles are still hosting the hoax.

Setting up Goal

Like many publishers, the postponement of live events and awards bites. Goal's annual NxGn awards continue today, a week later than planned. It still plans to recognise the 50 best young players in football. The content series will run as planned, the winners will still be announced. Goal will get the physical awards to the unavailable players later in the year.

Much of this content will go out on social media where it appears to be business as usual. Reach has dropped a mere 1.8% in March against February when football was still running. Engagement is even up on Twitter.

This can be partly explained by earlier diversificastion. A cornerstone of Goal’s output is virtual football – esports tournaments in the Fifa video game.

“Due to a lot of hard work over a number of years, Goal has pedigree when it comes to gaming content and that’s proving to be an important driver of traffic now fans move from the real to the virtual pitch," Brown said. Goal is also the official news provider inside the game Soccer Manager 2020 – a brand extension that makes the game world feel lived in.

As well as on-site gaming content, its social channels are running Fifa simulations of matches which have not been able to be played, such as the recent Champions League ties. For anyone desperate for a football fix, this could provide temporary relief.

That’s not to say there aren’t difficulties, and the commercial team is having to adapt to a challenging business environment. Sports marketers last week explained to The Drum how the postponement of top tournaments and the mass habit changes of media consumers has forced them to rethink plans and spend.

“I understand that there is no doubting that brand conversations right now have gone a little quiet as businesses tackle the impact of Covid-19," Brown admitted.

Programmatic advertising income continues to churn over as long as people keep reading. But the removal of the natural crescendo in the football season will have a negative impact on commercial deals and views in the short-term in all likelihood.

“The climax to domestic seasons, regional club competitions as well as Euro 2020 and Copa America have always provided a spike in briefs and investment across Goal," said Brown. "Naturally, this won’t happen in 2020 but we remain optimistic that football will resume and with that we will see a resurgence in activity across the platform.”

Conversations with brands continue, whether that's about substituting activity or putting in place grander plans for the triumphant return of football.

As for the silver-linings from the pandemic, Brown admitted: “It has given us an opportunity to test out some new concepts, which, if they work how we expect, could lead to better content streams later in the year."

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