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Can brands play a role for football fans in a world with no football?

by Matt Sullivan

21 May 2020 17:14pm

On 11 March 2020, Liverpool were knocked out of the Champions League by Atletico Madrid in front of fifty-two thousand fans at Anfield. Then COVID-19 happened. No professional team in the UK has played a match since.

Clearly, we know football pales into insignificance within the context of a global pandemic. However, as legendary Italian manager Arrigo Sacchi stated, football is "the most important of the unimportant things in life".

Regarded as the financial powerhouses of the sports industry, elite football clubs have previously seemed impervious to disaster. The financial crisis of 2008 didn’t prevent the world transfer record being broken on three separate occasions in 2009. However, with leagues and competitions on hold and no confirmed return-date, the COVID-19 crisis is having a profound impact on the business of football.

This has led many partner brands to take a long hard look at the substantial investments they make in the sport. In the face of COVID-19, brands have had to recalibrate their thinking and reflect on how they can play a meaningful role for fans in a world with no football. While we acknowledge some brands will be wary of activating during this time, a recent Kantar study found that just 8% of people wanted brands to stop advertising all-together. Nevertheless, with controversies around some Premier League clubs furloughing staff and Matt Hancock igniting a player salary debate, there is clearly an uneasy relationship between COVID-19 and football. This highlights the fundamental need of hitting the right tone of voice with any activity.

Undeniably, we’ve all had to change our habits and behaviours during lockdown. The partner brands who have effectively continued to leverage their partnership have been tapping into the fundamental changes in our behaviours to create effective content.

With gyms currently closed and outdoor activity limited, Nike activated around their partnership with Chelsea by enlisting star players to deliver home workout sessions. Another burgeoning lockdown trend has been the quarantine quiz. Hotels.com, a partner of Tottenham Hotspur, identified this early and now provide regular online Spurs-based quizzes.
Furthermore, with an increased reliance on technology and connectivity during lockdown, BT, the official lead partner of the four Home Nation Football Associations, has been offering tech tips to support the UK. England manager Gareth Southgate has been demonstrating how to use fitness apps as part of BT’s effort to improve the nations’ digital capabilities and complement their wider Skills for Tomorrow digital training programme.

By necessity, brands are having to repurpose existing contractual assets, most notably player and talent access. Standard Chartered, lead partner of Liverpool, is challenging first team players to recreate their favourite goals in their back gardens. Additional fan engagement is driven by encouraging fans to recreate and post the goals themselves. This has been a big success, with a recent post generating 11% more engagement and 34% more views than the last piece of Standard Chartered branded content released prior to lockdown.

The lives of footballers can often feel so remote to us mere mortals. However, the crisis has brought about a situation where we are living through a shared experience with our normally remote idols. As BT and Standard Chartered have demonstrated, that presents an opportunity to create interesting and relatable content, even while the main product is on hold.

The most effective brands are continuing to play a meaningful role in football by reaching out to rights holders to understand what access is available. They are also looking into ways in which they can reward key workers and those on the frontline. Several partner brands have agreed to give away future ticket allocations to essential workers, as well as offering rewards and discounts during lockdown.

We must always remember this is not about capitalising on a crisis. It’s about identifying the issues and opportunities to support communities at a time of unrest. By using existing contractual assets and having an open dialogue with rights holders, it is absolutely possible for brands to continue to play a meaningful role in football. Those who do so effectively are likely to deepen their connection and association with their partners.

Martin Nash, Account Director, Cake


Sports Marketing