Now that the coronavirus pandemic has wiped the sporting calendar clean, the withdrawal symptoms are evidently setting in, leaving fans, athletes, the media and just about everyone with a dependency on sport to pine for its return.
When that might be, nobody can be sure. Like the spread of Covid-19 itself, there is no telling when this unexpected and unprecedented hiatus will end, nor is it possible to accurately compute the full extent of its impact. What is clear is that everything which constitutes sport’s traditional business has been upended as never before.
Postponements and cancellations have come thick and fast. No live events means no ticketing revenue and hospitality income, while important questions hang over existing sponsorship contracts and broadcasting deals. Even the most optimistic of experts are proclaiming that, when all is said and done, the business of sport could look quite different than it did before the virus outbreak took hold.
But that is all speculation. For now, sports rights holders and media organisations across the globe can do little else but hunker down and get creative to stay relevant and sate the appetites of housebound, content-starved fans.
In response to the challenge set before them, a growing number of rights holders and media organisations have removed paywalls or taken to offering their premium services at discounted rates, while many are doubling down on video-on-demand (VOD) and archive content, raiding their expansive libraries to present fans with classic matches and historical moments.
Recently, fans were given complimentary access to NBA League Pass and NFL Game Pass, two premium streaming products that have until now been offered to out-of-market and international audiences on a subscription basis. Fifa, world soccer’s governing body, has taken to showing iconic World Cup matches via its own channels and opening its archive to its broadcast partners, such as the BBC in the UK and NOS in the Netherlands. The Deltatre-powered Tennis TV is airing classic action featuring past greats like Andre Agassi and Boris Becker, while the Olympic Channel has set up a dedicated channel to air opening and closing ceremonies from Olympic Games held during the past 30 years.
Elsewhere, broadcast executives are scrambling to plug gaping holes in programme schedules.
MultiChoice has acquired the best award-winning sports documentaries from around the globe and produced thematic channels for sports lovers to relive the greatest sporting moments of all time. MultiChoice has thus expanded its information and entertainment offering and reach. The expansion has seen SuperSport One (SS1) open to DStv Compact Plus and DStv Compact customers. The channel will thrill customers with past sports stories that have created some of the sport’s most magical moments. SuperSport Seven (SS7) which will showcase Motorsport action is now open to DStv Access subscribers while SuperSport Four (SS4) which showcases past WWE content is opened to DStv Family customers.
US network ESPN has upped its news and original programming and is exploring options to re-air classic games, while it is also bringing back its ESPN8 ‘The Ocho’ novelty channel and showing its acclaimed 30 for 30 documentaries on its ESPN+ OTT service. DAZN, the sports streaming company often likened to Netflix, has altered its user interface, replacing a la carte live sports menus, which normally sit at the forefront of its offering, with catalogue programming.
Inevitably, in-house media teams at leagues and clubs across all sports have been quick to harness the immediacy, flexibility and interactive nature of social platforms to improvise and experiment with things like polls and games. Out-of-work athletes are also getting in on the act, creating workout videos, tutorials and other lifestyle-focused content for distribution across their personal accounts and those of their employers.
But it is esports and virtual gaming that present perhaps the clearest opportunity to fill the void and feed the appetites of social-distancing fans. Last weekend, Formula One replaced its real-life Bahrain Grand Prix with a virtual race featuring drivers, sports stars and gamers, airing coverage on YouTube and Twitch. Nascar, in partnership with iRacing, has done something similar. In soccer, tournaments based on the popular FIFA title, such as those run by Spain’s La Liga and English side Leyton Orient, have gained widespread traction. In the US, too, some major league franchises and media outlets are creating video game simulations of previously scheduled fixtures.
At some point, however, normal order – or some semblance of it – will need to be restored. Clubs and leagues will have seasons to finish and organisers will need to get back to running live events. Sponsors will resume on-site activations, broadcasters will restart full-scale productions. Fans will be prompted to reactivate paused subscriptions and invited to enjoy the live action once again.