As lockdown measures in the UK remain tight, sport continues to take place behind closed doors. Sport Industry Group spoke with Stacey Knight, Commercial and Marketing Director of Sport Industry Awards partner CSM Live - which was at the forefront of bringing sport back to our screens in the summer - about the lessons sport has learned from lockdown.
Despite more than 10 months without fans in stadiums, sport has found a way to restart safely as well as provide entertainment to fans even through the second wave of the pandemic.
When the first lockdown was announced in March 2020, sporting properties set to work almost immediately to mitigate the financial problems caused by the shutdown, produce value for sponsors and broadcasters, and entertain loyal fans.
But initial predictions about filling stadiums virtually for broadcast by using artificial intelligence, building temperature check or sanitisation tunnels, or even just bringing fans into grounds via Zoom were mostly avoided in favour of more traditional methods of matchday delivery across all sports.
“Sport is an incredible incubator of cutting edge tech, but what actually was getting most traction, ironically, was tried and trusted, almost traditional solutions,” said Stacey Knight, Commercial and Marketing Director, CSM Live.
“In these uncertain times, the industry felt it just needed to do something tried and tested - something we know worked and something we know would get results.”
Those tried and tested methods gave rise to the now-ubiquitous seat-kills seen across multiple sports giving partners and sponsors a kind of on-screen visibility they haven’t had before.
“We produced more seat kills than anyone has ever produced - just an astronomical amount - for the likes of the Basketball Champions League, and of course for the Premier League and Champions League,” said Knight. “That’s what everyone got behind, and it worked.”
“Sport wasn’t sure it was the right time to embrace technology and felt it needed this big, warm blanket - and seat kills just ticked every box.
“From a Premier League point of view, the clubs really embraced it. They were able to put up charity messaging - including supporting the NHS. Sponsors were finally able to get some commercial traction. And actually, in the end, the value of the Premier League seat kills turned out to be more than the LED perimeter boards and generated between £700,000 to a million pounds worth of media coverage per match.
“Even when small numbers of spectators did return, a lot of clubs kept the seat kills up because they don't want that commercial value to disappear and dissipate.”
Packaging the new matchday experience into a made-for-TV event was the most visible aspect of the work done behind the scenes by clubs, leagues, federations and other organisations like CSM Live. But to get sport back up and running despite the virus, creating a bio-secure bubble for athletes, staff, officials, media and others was an even more fundamental job. It set up bio-secure bubbles for the likes of the Premier League and the ECB as it conducted a series of international matches throughout the summer.
“Our first port of call was obviously health and safety, so we knew there was going to have to be a trafficking system and sanitisation points,” said Knight. “We had to do all of that before we started looking at all of the things we normally do - branding, signage, wayfinding for the fan experience.
“You have technology that can be used to help from a safety perspective, and that I think can massively benefit the industry, like data and spatial analytics, where we can record how many people are congregating in an area anonymously via WiFi.”
Taking that technology into the future of live sport, when fans are back into stadiums, is now high on the agenda, as is putting an emphasis on other areas that require urgent action: such as climate change.
Throughout the pandemic, Knight says she and her team have worked more closely with their partners than ever before, leading to a better understanding of their needs and a desire to develop those partnerships further in the future to address some of the challenges sustainability will present when live events return.
“This period has allowed us to work with federations and governing bodies and ask ‘what can we do to help you? And what can you do to help us?’” she said.
“It put us on a journey with all of our brands and clients to really understand their objectives, their strategy, and then to work with them on that. We probably wouldn't have done so to this degree in the past.
“Working closely with our partners, you start to understand more the other aspects of the business that you weren't privy to before, and it allowed us to start to work with them a lot more closely. It also allowed them to understand just how far we could go, and what we were able to deliver.
“When we come out of this, hopefully we will be able to expand on the offering with brands. We're already spearheading the way in terms of sustainability, but rather than just being sustainable, how do we create a circular economy? How do we reuse and repurpose everything that we've already put out there?
“This has been a hard time, a scary time, both on a business and personal level for us all. But it's really allowed us to ask what are the developments we need to make in order to drive the industry forward in a really meaningful way?”