Football is back and so is its marketing – but it's a different ball game without fans

Dortmund's usually vociferous Signal Iduna Park was eerily quiet on Saturday

Germany's Bundesliga is back, and other football leagues around the world are now gearing up to return in the weeks ahead. Amar Singh, head of football content and strategy for Budweiser, continues his lockdown diary of a sports marketer by sharing how he's preparing for football as we've never seen it before.

If the surrealness of current events was not apparent enough, the sight of Borussia Dortmund’s Erling Haaland celebrating his opening goal against Schalke, with a little dance, as his teammates stood two metres away in an eerily-quiet Signal Iduna Park, certainly felt like the dawn of a new era.

It looked like a bizarre glitch in Fifa 20, but far from a malfunction, this was a considered attempt by Haaland and friends to maintain some form of ‘business as usual’ in a sport that has been turned upside down by the pandemic.

Football behind closed doors or “Geister Spiele” (Ghost Games) as they call them in Germany is football but not entirely as we know it.

Nevertheless, Dortmund’s passing was almost as free-flowing as one of Michael Jordan’s suits from 1993, and I, for one, was so happy to be watching live football again.

If the Bundesliga continues without incident or infection – and we all pray it does – a June return for the Premier League and La Liga seems inevitable.

Amid the arguments and counter-arguments over football’s return, the vast majority of people in the game are keen to get the show back on the road.

The prospect of a six-week flurry of live football – on TV only – might not be the celebration of humanity that will need to happen once life returns to normal, but it will certainly be a huge step in the right direction.

As Premier League and La Liga partners, Budweiser has its part to play in this moment.

I have been working with my colleagues at DraftLine – ABI’s in house creative agency – to explore our role and activations in making the ‘Support from Home’ experience as rewarding and fun as possible.

Initiatives around purpose-driven campaigns have continued apace. Our campaign Save Pub Life, which gives pub-goers a chance to help their local by purchasing a voucher – the value of which ABI match – has raised more than £800,000.

Hundreds of pubs and bars across the country are receiving this money now while their doors are closed and they need it most.

Through working with publishers such as Football365 to get the message out there, I’m really pleased that we have several pubs popular with match-goers signed up too, including The Sandon – a favourite of Liverpool supporters – and The Chelsea Pensioner, which is adjacent to Stamford Bridge and is frequented by Blues fans.

I know that when the day comes that fans are able to go back to supporting in the stadiums, it will be hugely important that these much-loved establishments are there to serve those pre-match pints.

As Budweiser’s head of football content, I’ve also relished the challenge of finding new ways to work with ambassadors and talent at this time.

For instance, Liverpool legends Steve McManaman and Luis Garcia joined me for an online Zoom talk last week watched by hundreds of my ABI colleagues across the world.

We talked about coping strategies, leadership principles and team ethos gleaned from their brilliant careers.

For two players whose success largely came after they took a risk, left their home town clubs and moved abroad for a new adventure, they were able to offer plenty of insight on adapting to change at a time when we are all having to do so.

At a time when we have all become online quiz enthusiasts, our partnership with the FA led to a great opportunity.

With John Barnes and Ray Parlour on hosting duties, Bud Light’s England pub quiz was streamed live to thousands of Three Lions fans on YouTube.

For brand partners, football’s return behind closed doors presents a host of challenges – but many more opportunities.

So much of our enjoyment of the game is tied up in the atmosphere, the experience of match-going and the roar of a packed stadium.

This experience is indelibly linked to the emotion of following the sport, so inevitably it becomes the focus for so many brands.

Removing this from football and indeed all live sporting events for the foreseeable future means sports marketeers need to strategically reset and recalibrate.

It’s down to us to identify the opportunities and keep the needs of consumers – in this case, football-starved fans – at the heart of our thinking.

Just because they will be physically detached does not mean they should be psychologically and emotionally detached from the action when it returns.

In the hierarchy of football fans, it’s the supporter who follows from a distance who has so often been regarded as less deserving of recognition or somehow less of a fan than the loyal season ticket holder.

Well, we’re all armchair fans now. So let’s make the most of it together.

Amar Singh is head of football content & strategy for Budweiser. He tweets on @amarjourno

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