Op-Ed: Ten Lessons From Lockdown

21 Jul 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

As the coronavirus lockdown begins to ease and sport continues to return, the team at M&C Saatchi have put together a report looking at a series of lessons the industry can learn as we come out on the other side of the pandemic.

While the lockdown period has brought an acceptance that change will happen, many of those trends that were already in development have been accelerated.

“There has never been such a business imperative and creative opportunity to embrace change on a global scale," said Steve Martin, Global CEO, M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment. "Our 10 lessons from lockdown highlight the key trends we are seeing and the opportunities for change they offer. More than ever, we will have to embrace change and find brutally simple solutions that navigate a new world.”


1. Time to unify

Lockdown has exposed the gaping chasms in our societies, but has also shone a light on the shared passions that can unite us. Coming out of lockdown, these passions emerge with a greater opportunity to gel communities, cultures and even countries. As Nelson Mandela said, “Sport has the power to change the world, it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite.” Music and cultural events brought people together during lockdown in a similar way; the One World Together concert raised almost $128m million globally.

The change:

Sponsors and brands in sport and entertainment have to embrace the unifying power that our industry has on a global scale and genuinely make positive change by taking an active, unifying role in the recovery.

2. Activate the archive

Over a 5-week period the world’s attention was held by a sporting storyline from over 20 years ago. Not every archive is lucky enough to contain enough footage to create an original Michael Jordan documentary, but The Last Dance demonstrated the incredible editorial power of the archive and the appetite of audiences for well executed, original long form content.

The change:

Embracing the archive gives brands an opportunity to break the dogma of short form and snackable content and become producers of longer form editorially driven entertainment.

3. New media world

The pandemic is accelerating the decline of the old media paradigm and quickly bringing a new one to life. As media companies around the planet cut staff and adapt their strategies to a new world, the media that will survive the crisis will be far more agile, decentralized, and less dependent on advertising. New media models are forming through passion economy services like Substack and Patreon, empowering independent journalists to serve small-but-influential audiences.

The change:

Time to change our traditional media relations and comms strategies in order to take advantage of this new landscape. As these independent outlets become ever more influential they offer an incredibly authentic way to access and engage audiences.

4. Athlete and artist activism should be encouraged

Killer Mike to Marcus Rashford the most inspirational, compassionate and unifying voices across the globe over the last few months have been young athletes and artists. This feels a long way from the ‘Republicans buy sneakers too’ stand. This should encourage not scare brands, as engagement with important societal issues like Black Lives Matter makes these voices far more compelling and deepens their relationships with audiences. Trend reports have been highlighting for years the fact that Gen Z are more socially conscious and active than their predecessors, it should be no surprise that their icons are too.

The change:

Brands will have to embrace what previously made them feel uncomfortable and give the activism of these icons the platform it deserves as athletes and artists are no longer comfortable staying in ‘their lane.’

5. It’s the year 2030

Covid-19 wasn’t a game changer, it was an accelerant, a terrible fuel added to a rocket whose destination was already set. As an industry, those not ready for rapid digitisation, cord-cutting, and commercialisation will look out of place rather soon. The US saw a 70% jump in cord- cutting homes in Q1 (1.7 million in total), eSports sponsorship deals are up 53% YoY and the live experience is subject to a hiatus with no definitive end in sight. Some changes were expected, others were a shock, but what felt like the distant future is now just around the corner.

The change:

Get ahead of the game by pre-empting where your audience is going to be in five years’ time and making your move now.

6. Passions are a good bet in a recession

As recession hits people tend to nest – great news for delivery pizza and wine – but they also stick by their passions through thick and thin. During the last recession cable TV subscriptions and sport memberships were some of the last ‘discretionary’ spending to be cut by households. This time around we’ve already seen the Premier League’s viewership record broken in the UK, the PGA tour golf viewership up 50% YoY in the US, the Defected Virtual Festival pull in nearly 8 million viewers and film viewing at an all-time high globally thanks to the lockdown dominance of the likes of Netflix.

The change:

As an industry we can’t be blasé about this, we must embrace the marketing potential of passions during recession and be ready to help brands become commercially smarter than ever with their rights and showcase the bottom line value added by passions.

7. We need to welcome the class of 2020

The traditional big sponsorship industries – auto, travel, insurance to name just three – have taken Covid particularly hard. We hope their commitment to passions remains strong as sport, entertainment and the arts depend on them, but this is also a wake-up call for our industry to engage the new disruptor class of brands that have reshaped the world over the last decade or so. It’s no surprise that brands built in the digital age haven’t found comfort in the traditionally analogue world of sponsorship, so this is our chance to show them we’re worth their investment.

The change:

Lockdown has supercharged the growth of digitally-led businesses, traditionally reliant on very direct, sales-oriented marketing channels. As they reach critical mass and their ability to disrupt and differentiate fades, the strength of brand-building disciplines comes to the fore and there is none more effective than sponsorship. We need to keep making the case for building brands through passions but we have to change to speak in the language of these digital disruptor businesses and not rely on a tried and tested approach.

8. The rights package is wrong

The Lockdown has exposed the antiquated way many sponsorships are packaged and sold. This is the legacy of buying a sponsorship like a media plan rather than a tailored way to engage an audience through their passion. If you were to start with a blank piece of paper would you really deliver only one tenth of a sponsorship’s value online when brands spend 50% of their budgets online?

The change:

To move on from digital rights feeling like a garnish on the top of a package and instead place dynamic, defined and disruptive digital rights at the heart of the sponsorship package.

9. The direct-to-fancomms revolution

Lockdown has driven athletes, artists, and celebrities to embrace direct-to-fan comms channels at unprecedented scale. Patreons, private Discord servers, Cameo, IG Live, Twitch streams, Ashton Kutcher’s “Community” app, Charli XCX hosting her own press conference on Zoom, are becoming the norm. Rather than original content and fan-relationships being mediated by a third party, talent is picking up the phone and broadcasting itself.

The change:

Large scale sponsorships remain the most powerful tool to engage audiences through the things they love, but these should increasingly be brought to life through individuals. They can allow brands to reach and connect directly with fans in an authentic and credible way.

10. Passion is the original social network

Sport, music & film have been connecting millions of distant strangers for years. We can go to a nightclub or sports bar anywhere in the world and bond instantly with a fellow fan of deep house or Paris Saint- Germain. And if we can’t meet in person, we still feel a sense of purpose and community by knowing that our teammates are out there. Passion is both the “carrier signal” that brings us into the room with people we love and the banner under which we unite. Post-lockdown, we’ll depend more than ever on our passions to reconnect and reunite us.

The change:

The sort of emotional moments we dream about are about to happen in swathes as we reunite with our passions, brands have the opportunity to be part of the greatest and most emotional reuniting in decades.