MANY Digital: Taking Fan Engagement Online

10 Jun 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

As sport starts to return and the entire industry begins to recover, many organisations will have had to pivot to digital much quicker than they ever thought possible. Digital transformation has been thrust upon many, and traditional fan engagement has been moved from the physical to the virtual. Here, MANY Digital COO Christian Nielsen explains how rightsholders have an opportunity to shift their entire fan engagement model to digital.

As in any other industry, digital transformation in sports is challenging. This is because it involves and crosses all layers, parts, divisions, and processes of an organization and affects the whole culture and mindset within it.

Having worked in the digital (transformation) space within different industries for 15 years, I have first-hand experience of how changing mindsets and business cultures is a huge challenge, which demands lots of resources and efforts from a lot of people, and sometimes takes far longer time than you initially planned.

In fact, once you have chosen to initiate the digital transformation journey, you will probably never finish it. The journey will continuously evolve as you increase your digital awareness and skills. And you will keep developing your digital culture as you become more aware of your how your ambitions and demands fit the digital opportunities at hand.

Most sports industry experts agree that Covid-19 has highlighted some of the weaknesses and difficulties that sports rightsholders currently have. Throughout the lockdown (which fortunately seems to be coming to an end soon!), we have seen some good and innovative attempts from rightsholders to use digital channels to deliver new content and engage with fans in new ways.

However, what has struck me the most during this lock-down period, is that, generally, rightsholders seem to have missed out on the opportunity to also use digital channels and “airtime” to activate their sponsors e.g. through branded content and/or fan engagement services. And this lack of digital sponsor activation has happened through a period when sponsors have been even more dependent on rightsholders’ ability to innovate their sponsor value offerings through alternative digital channels.

As Sam Yardley from Two Circles states in his latest article, a sponsorship’s revolution is now under way, and we begin to see a paradigm shift towards digital:  “Sports’ challenge is to be able to give sports sponsors the technology and measurement they would receive in the world of digital publishing”.

Throughout the lockdown, many rightsholders have been struggling to satisfy their sponsors expectations to deliver return/value in other ways than the traditional, analogue, and physical ones. In some cases, a reliance on the money from media rights has brought complacency.

However, if anything positive can be said about the lock-down, it would probably be that for some rightsholders, it has functioned as a catalyst for considering alternatives.

There’s no doubt that there has been a significant increase in the use of digital, channels, content and fan engagement innovation. When things get back to normal, the digitally prepared rightsholders will be better equipped to deliver targeted content and offer a more attractive portfolio of channels and opportunities for existing and potential sponsors and commercial partners.

In Denmark (the home turf of MANY Digital), we have seen innovative fan engagement initiatives e.g. from the Superliga football clubs FC Midtjylland and AGF.

FC Midtjylland was the first club worldwide to offer fans and sponsors a “drive-in stadium experience” at their first match after lock-down, and AGF was the first club in the world to offer a “virtual stadium fan experience” powered by a collaboration with the international digital video platform, Zoom.

In both cases, after more than two months without football in the country, fans were able to take part in the game and enjoy the community with the fellow fans even though they were not physically allowed into the stadium. From these fantastic cases, I think at least four learnings about digital transformation in sports can be made:

  1. They serve as good examples of how progressive rightsholders have used the lock-down period to explore alternative, innovative ways to deliver new types of digital content and fan engagement services, and at the same time activate sponsors to drive revenue from it.
  2. The cases document that digital transformation in sports is not always something that involves years of preparation and strategy work to successfully implement within a relatively short period of time (in these cases even within weeks!).
  3. They provide proof of how already proven and available digital technologies can be exploited in new ways to power fan engagement and activate sponsors.
  4. Finally, these cases have surely given the rightsholders valuable digital experience as well as lots of data and insights into their fans…and probably also the appetite to continue their respective digital transformation journeys.

I have tried to follow the innovative digital fan engagement, content, and sponsor activation initiatives from rightsholders during the lock-down, and I think it is obvious that COVID-19 has been a shake-up for many. It has shown the importance of the “digital paradigm shift”. The lock-down has clearly already made some rightsholders even stronger and let to the creation of greater digital content and engagement services for their fans. And their fans are, after all (and should continue to be) at the core of every rightsholders’ business.

Good fan content and engagement can fuel everything else in a rightsholders business, and in this way, I think everyone can benefit from this development – fans, sponsors and rightsholders. For other rightsholders, the lock-down has shown how short they have come in their digital transformation journey.

Just like rightsholders, at MANY Digital, we have spent our time looking at ways to provide immersive and unique experiences through our TEAM Manager solution. With ‘fan less’ or ‘social distant’ stadiums looking like the normal for the foreseeable future, we’ve been exploring how existing functionality (video streaming, SoMe integration, content, data feeds, chat, ticketing and profile set-up) can create a matchday experience virtually.

Hey, nothing can replace the real thing, but a ‘next-best-thing’ in the land of digital – allowing sports fans to get together, chat, comment…even book a seat at the stadium with their friends to watch live streaming of training sessions, press conferences, player interviews and where rights permit, live matches. Even share their own content through SoMe channels etc.

It’s great for the fan, but also an opportunity for rightsholders, sponsors and commercial partners to join the conversation through content sponsorship, gamification, loyalty programs, push notifications, offers and promotions – all powered through the TEAM Manager commercial engine. Something not just for the now, but for when things get back to normal…and they will. We look forward to following other digital sports innovations and concepts, which come out of the lock-down.