The world heaved a sigh of relief when top flight football resumed in the German Bundesliga last month. Finally after weeks of no action, sports was back and how!
Of course, given the current circumstances, some major precautions and changes needed to be implemented, one of which was holding the matches behind closed doors, something that left the fans ruing. But there was no other option.
With time, sports is breathing back to life — albeit in empty stadiums — but at least it’s back. In India, as well, things are speeding up, the football season is set to kick off in September, so is the Indian Premier League (IPL) and other sports will follow. But, again, owing to the coronavirus pandemic, the equations have changed completely.
When it comes to fan engagement, it is one of the most important part of for any sport for the growth of popularity of any sport. Without fans in stadiums, social media is set to take a major role when it comes to engagement and it is no secret that industry leaders see this as an opportunity rather than a setback.
The Bridge hosted a webinar with Siddharth Raman, the Chief Officer of Sportz Interactive, to discuss fan engagement in times of social distancing and fan engagement in Olympic sports versus Cricket and Esports and more.
Raman, whose first memory involving sports is watching the initial days of white ball cricket on TV, talked about how he got hooked into sports as a fan. “It was February-March ‘93 and this was the famous Sharadashram versus England test match where you had Sachin Tendulkar, Vinod Kambli, Praveen Amre, all in the team and and I remember also being there in the stadium to to watch them take on England and and one moment from there which I always cherish was when I entered the cricket stadium and I watched the stands — you enter the stands and you go up and the first view that you get of the ground and the pitch… it sends goosebumps and I still get that to this day and for any sporting arena for that matter right when I enter.”
He further continues on the impact of the pandemic, “See, obviously all of us are badly hit by the pandemic and going forward obviously the essence of fan engagement will change and it won’t be the same, at least in the near future… that we all can sense.”
“It is something that none of us are you know used to and it’s something that we are seeing or the experiencing for the first time but as people who work in the business of fan engagement, I think it is important to also see this as an opportunity to innovate, an opportunity to still be able to delight fans on the back of digital offerings even though you know a fan is sitting at home and watching the game.
“While social distancing needs to be maintained, I think the connections you can build on the back of digital technology still exist to help create that live atmosphere. I think that’s the that’s the opportunity that all stakeholders, all leagues, all teams, all brands will be looking to tap into going forward.”
Raman gave instances of how people have already started adjusting with the current scenario. “Even if you don’t have fans in the stadium, you still have millions of fans online and there’s a latent fandom that needs to be tapped into at a at a time like this and that’s the opportunity for everyone working in the business of sport to to look at and therefore what can we do over there to really innovate further and and and deliver experiences like we never have before.”
He pointed out that one needs to go back and see how fan engagement has been done over the last 50 years, what direction it has taken — from radio commentary to live experience on TV — only then one can ideate or innovate something new.
“There has been a change in currency of fan engagement, if I can use that term. To put it simplistically, even up to about 15 or 20 years ago, the most prized possession was an autograph from your favorite player but now it’s how do I get a selfie with my favorite player or how do I get a personalized message from my favorite player.
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Posted by The Bridge on Monday, May 18, 2020
“I think that’s where you know there’s a massive opportunity on the back of digital technologies to be able to fuel that part.”
Raman also spoke about how football, kabaddi and other sports measure up to cricket and how one has to take different strategies for optimal results. “From an Indian social media fan engagement perspective, you need to layer it by sport. What you do for cricket may not necessarily work for kabaddi and similarly for football as well. So it’s a little nuanced in that way but at a high level it’s how do you stay relevant at a time like this on the back of what is going on.”
“Something that’s really picked up is players deciding to go live on Instagram and having these chats with each other. I remember I read a journalist tweeting that if players continue talking to each other like this and and share their insights directly with their fans, journalists might have a tough time trying to justify their existence. Obviously, the person was joking but it’s true to a certain extent. One is you get to see player, you get to see your heroes in a completely unsanitized environment. They are not in a studio with these heavy duty lights and the multiple cameras. Everything is scripted, they know what to say, what not to say and they’re very very measured in their conversation.
“The very fact that our players are sitting at home talking into their phone and talking to a friend at the other end with millions of other people watching, I think that broke down a lot of barriers and that just helped us see a side of our heroes which you never would have gotten to see otherwise. This has actually set the foundation for all future fan engagement activities because you can’t go back to what it was because you’ve seen what a Suresh Raina and Irfan Pathan session, or a Virat Kohli-Kevin Pietersen session achieved.”
“It’s very interesting to see different facets of their personalities, right? If you see Sunil Chhetri’s recent Live sessions, he was able to hold his own in a conversation with Shashi Tharoor, with Ranveer Singh, with Kohli. That’s content that fans absolutely love. You wouldn’t see that in a scripted conversation otherwise. Words just came out in the spontaneity of the moment and you can make out how authentic and spontaneous they are. I think those are the kind of things that really need to continue, from a fan engagement perspective,” he said.