Re-imagining the Sport Industry in SA

The global Covid-19 pandemic has been a catalyst to critical thinking, honest engagement and a recalibration of the sports and entertainment industry.

As everyone in the sports and events industry scrambles to react to the unforeseen situation that Covid-19 has forced upon us, I have spent most of my time engaging with the Treble team, our clients, and our valued partners.

I recently wrote a piece that was published on Sport24 discussing potential ways to reshape our vision in the sports industry, and internally within Treble, I have focused on proactively managing the financials to keep the business afloat, whilst stretching the team to seriously review our business offering and how it might be affected going forward.

I have read a number of published pieces on how our industry will never be the same, and yes, we have addressed the same questions such as, “How will our existing offerings need to be realigned? Should we be moving aggressively into the digital space? Etc.”

This effort has been against an uncertain backdrop of trying to keep the team positive, while you communicate salary reductions and the ever present ‘elephant in the room’ – potential retrenchments.

Our senior management team have consulted extensively as to how businesses are approaching the balancing of books and handling the human resources factors responsibly. This is a first for many businesses and I have adopted a principle of total transparency and dialogue across the board.

We are a “Treble team” and I will work as hard as possible to hold the team together. This is highly challenging for any business as there is an unknown to a major variable, being the “duration” of the impact of this global lockdown.

I have explained to our team, it’s not about whether we can return to the office at level 3,2 or 1. We are an industry that needs the entire economy to open up, businesses to recover, marketing budgets to be committed and more critically, a medical solution be found so that the passionate supporters and athletes can attend our live sporting events.

Externally, I have watched past and present professional sports personalities, their teams, rights federations, sponsors and media partners all dive into the digital space. We have seen players showing themselves training at home; explaining good hygiene practices; challenging each other to various challenges; using this time to help where they can and joining online streaming platforms to engage with supporters via posting comments into the feed.

Treble has been no different, we have updated all our communications platforms to showcase our work, promote our offerings to try and stay top of mind and remain positive. However, I seem to be grappling with more fundamental questions.

Have we as an agency, and all the relevant stakeholders, used this opportunity to fundamentally look at themselves and broaden their reference points to understand what has been changing anyway? The Covid-19 Lockdown has given us an opportunity to stop the bus and think critically about the rapidly changing sports industry and what is global best practice in other industries.

I will borrow the words of someone I recently had an enlightening conversation with, who until recently held the position of Global Head of Sponsorships for a multinational financial institution. Over a long online conversation, we grappled with the above points and he strongly believes that sponsorships are a critical and powerful tool in the market mix.

But rightsholders, and even professional players, need to appreciate that the real value lies with the end customer – the passionate supporter. A large part of the sports industry is sold on the number of eyeballs – being spectators and audience ratings. Major domestic, global rightsholders and personalities market and sell themselves by stressing their attendances, the number of followers they have on their social media platforms, the world-class players that are part of their product, and broadcasting audiences.

The issue is sports still does not control the access or have detailed intelligence on their supporters. Sport and individuals are beholden to the social media platform algorithms and T&Cs regarding their partners engagement on their social media platforms.  Even the online ticketing solutions are often provided by third party service providers, whose aim is to drive foot traffic to their stores or online platforms.

Sport can learn from the music and gaming industries, where I use the following example during the lockdown. Travis Scott released his new soundtrack within the Fortnight gaming platform. Who is Travis Scott, and what does the launch of a song in a game have to do with anything?

Thinking critically, I watched my teenage son contact his friends to ensure they were in the special “world” within the game at a specific time. They spent an hour playing within the game running around as they waited for Travis to appear. The event was the same as a concert of old! Thousands of fans singing and cheering waiting for the main act. Travis finally appeared as a huge hologram of himself, with his new track playing and the boys went mad.

This is my point when I say we have a lot to learn. We are looking at the convergence of entertainment and technology platforms. Sport needs to fully immerse itself into utilising those platforms to capture the minds of this new generation.

Currently, Treble is unpacking how do we effectively stage a virtual FIFA 2020 tournament, which is great, but I don’t believe it gets to the fundamental questions and opportunity we have right now. The value is in having a direct relationship with the fans. Do we really have a direct relationship with them or are we still just pushing content across our communication platforms and counting “likes”?

Do teams and players have any detailed understanding as to their passionate supporter base? Even better, do they have any diagnostics in place to develop bespoke solutions for those supporters?  Yes, Treble could dive into the digital space, but where do we begin? We should start with the end customer in mind. The technology is available, and the passionate fans are open and prepared to engage.

This lockdown has proven that young and old have been immersed in using technology (my 70-year-old in-laws discovered this ‘new’ TV channel called Youtube). Passionate fans want to get closer to their teams and players. They are prepared to grow with them and are willing to share information if their team or favourite player can create a valuable proposition that they trust and speaks to them.

Covid-19 has been a catalyst in recalibrating the way we view sports as a product, and we need to change our mindset if we are to succeed in ensuring that this industry remains relevant in the brave new world we are currently entering.