Sport brings people together like few other social constructs. It entertains. It inspires healthy lifestyles. That cathartic release – a last-minute winner, a Hawkeye challenge on a crucial point, a perfectly timed hit – a sense of escape from daily routine.
It caters to the human need to be with each other as age-old communities in close proximity. It relies on the certainty of uncertainty in competitive settings.
Now, with stumps unsurprisingly called, people have been forced apart. The suspense of the spectacle gone. Teams, leagues, events, and governing bodies placed in their own suspended animation for the foreseeable future as the world battles a coronavirus pandemic that is plainly bigger than sport itself.
But the role of sports brands and rights holders is significant nonetheless, if only to help stave off an ancillary ‘loneliness epidemic’ that Ezra Klein of Vox puts so well in one of his recent columns. “As with so much else in the coronavirus pandemic,” he writes, “the response here will depend on the level of social solidarity we feel.”
The universal threat of a ‘social recession’ should motivate digital teams in sport to drum up as much of this solidarity as possible – at least parasocially. Here is one strategic approach that could help achieve that.
Social media and the Experience Economy
Stakeholders in the world of sport have cultivated vast audiences on their social media channels that are now even more fundamental to their own continued existence.
In simple terms, having no product to market for an extended and unplanned period of time means they must work much harder to keep those existing fans engaged, let alone attracting new ones. (Of course, this must be done even with the delicate tread of both style and substance necessary in the current situation.)
To help build a framework around the types of social media content that could ‘stand in’ for those lost physical experiences, it is worth a look back at a seminal study by Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, published in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, about what they dub ‘The Experience Economy’.
At the height of the dot-com boom, the pair posited that, following the twentieth-century commoditisation first of goods and then of services, “the next competitive battleground lies in staging experiences”. By experiences, they meant when a company “intentionally uses services as the stage, and goods as props, to engage individual customers in a way that creates a memorable event”.
It was a call that rings true even in recent times, having supposedly reached so-called ‘peak stuff’ as younger generations tend to favour social events over material objects – a trend now accelerated by FOMO-fomenting social media platforms themselves.
With the public sphere put on pause, though, it becomes infinitely harder to create social events in the first place as humans distance themselves to stem contagion.
So on comes the substitute: content as virtual experience.
Content as Virtual Experience
In normal times, content should spotlight and amplify the very best stories in sport, bring those who cannot attend closer to the game, and facilitate connections between fans and athletes. At LiveWire Sport, we aim to shine light on the characters’ personalities with behind-the-scenes access to enhance the fan's experience, rather than replace it.
Yet by extending Pine and Gilmore’s theoretical model, light can still be shed on consumer behaviour in an economy now steeped in ‘virtual experiences’ and in lieu of physical ones, if only temporarily.
A generation ago, the pair considered the types of motivations consumers have when they partake in society. They originally defined ‘experiences’ as lying across two dimensions: participation and connection. During a given occasion, consumers participate passively, actively, or somewhere in between, while also connecting on a sliding scale from absorption (linear consumption of the occasion) to immersion (360˚ involvement).
Introduce a global external shock such as a pandemic, and these relationships evidently break down everywhere. But a carbon copy emerges. It is one in which occasions occur through pixels rather than people, though people can still participate and connect all the same. It is akin to the so-called ‘Virtual Experience Economy’.
By unpicking the four realms of the graph, we can see just how certain sports brands and rights holders have struck the right balance with content fit for this new playing field.
The bread-and-butter content that serves simply to entertain, such experiences can be absorbed by fans and followers from afar without them actively participating in its delivery.
Formula 1 adapted to the cancellation of its Grand Prix by staging virtual versions between F1 drivers, esports stars and global sportspeople, while Tennis TV assembled several comical top-10 compilations (featuring meltdowns and misses), offering levity during a tenuous time. Heart-warming moments of fan outreach from Liverpool FC, the New York Mets, and many more brought fans closer to their heroes by investing time in poignant human interest stories.
On a similar note, bursts of enjoyment via virtual quizzes have been a source of dynamic connection with sports brands. Boosted by the overnight popularity of trivia through video-chatting software and apps, the Premier League’s #PLPubQuiz series has been particularly fruitful for the football faithful to interact with.
This type of content, at least in our Virtual Experience Economy, involves more active participation. Though it remains a one-way street in terms of connection, cues and instructions are taken from the creator as loyal subscribers follow along step by step to learn new tricks and skills in the comfort of their own homes. It has become especially important at a time when the closures of schools and offices mean that people require even more mental and physical stimulation to fulfil their days.
‘How to’ tutorials of athletes’ home workouts, such as those from England internationals Tammy Beaumont and Emily Scarratt, serve as snackable guides that inspire followers to emulate their heroes as they adjust to this new normal together.
Appropriately, sports brands have enlisted their top talent to post public service announcements emphasising the urgency of social distancing and demonstrating proper hand-washing techniques – from the serious to the whimsical – as well as passing on NHS health tips with a fresh, unique approach that fans can take to more willingly.
Crossing into the south-east quarter of the graph, escapist content in the Virtual Experience Economy prompts both active participation and the total immersion of fans online. An extension of ‘how to’ content, the ‘with me’ video’s steady rise throughout the 2010s has peaked during global self-isolation.
As explained by YouTube, the platform on which the movement originated and was popularised through make-up routine tutorials, “this new kind of content, built on sharing the mundane, often isolating experiences of people’s daily lives, is informational, inspirational, and most surprisingly, communal. Everyday tasks allow connections — between creators and viewers, but also between creators. In other words, doing things alone together can be the basis of a community”.
User-generated content on other social media platforms draws from this well of community. By coming up with inventive challenges for the people at home, a chain reaction occurs in which legions of fans are immersed in the experience, and can escape repetition in everyday life as a result. Broadcasters like ESPN, for instance, have leaned heavily on quarantine UGC from players, teams and fans alike to compensate for the lack of live sport on screens, and it is paying dividends in strengthening the bonds with their viewership.
In the original Experience Economy model, one is truly immersed while maintaining passive participation with little or no effect on the occasion itself, such as a visitor to an art gallery. It clearly becomes more difficult to replicate in a virtual world without active participation.
Dusting off archive footage and channelling the power of nostalgia during this time of reflection is one way that sports brands have been able to engross passive fans through content. It has sparked memories of historic moments through aesthetic visuals of a shared experience, like the NBA streaming classic games through Facebook Watch or Wimbledon premiering John Isner and Nicolas Mahut’s 11-hour marathon from 2010 in full, all while inviting engagement with the fanbase.
This realm offers sports content providers arguably the most opportunity for a new type of fan engagement within the model. Though we may be some distance away from the ubiquity of virtual reality headsets, there remains enormous potential for VR to immerse sports fans and recreate the 360˚ sensory experience that the world is missing out on at the moment. With creativity driven by the right strategic insights, it could be the next source of growth for digital sports creators to explore.
The Sweet Spot
Ideally, sports brands and rights holders should strive to reach the precise junction at which these four realms conjoin. Perhaps the closest medium to achieving this, by creating a space where fans could both observe others taking part in trends and challenges before actively participating themselves, has been TikTok.
Though it is impossible to be totally immersed in TikTok content, the full-screen vertical experience and infinite scroll on mobile often makes it more engrossing than the platform’s major competitors. A rapidly increasing number of sports organisations, particularly in the US, have either dipped their toes in the channel or embraced it fully as part of their digital strategy.
With 10 million followers, the NBA is the platform’s most followed brand, let alone sports league. Its feed includes snappy game highlights with original commentary alongside clips of amusing behind-the-scenes moments overlaid with trending audio tracks – all of which offers a unique angle on the league’s prized stars while opening its brand up to new audiences.
More recently, it has used the platform’s ‘Duet’ feature to great effect as a UGC campaign with young fans, who recreate their favourite NBA moments and have their clips posted side by side with the actual footage. The #jrNBAathome hashtag has over 20 million views to date.
Homebound players have likewise followed suit, with the app seen as a somewhat sillier creative outlet on which they can share their true personalities with fans and fill longer periods of downtime inside. It is a phenomenon that plays directly into the origins of the app itself: young people creating random, clever and funny videos in their own homes for others to enjoy and mimic.
TikTok’s positioning at this ‘sweet spot’ intersection of the Virtual Experience Economy merits full discussion in an entirely separate piece. But the early signs are there that sports brands and rights holders would do well to pivot their strategies towards the platform if they have not already done so.
Return to Experience IRL
The unprecedented suspensions of sports events and major leagues whose live action had provided online content reliably for more than two decades have shifted the goalposts. Screen time and the demand for digital video suddenly soars, as fans resort to their devices more often to get their daily fill of entertaining, educational, escapist, and aesthetic experiences.
Naturally, then, the battle for eyeballs and attention between sports content providers not only intensifies with each other, but also with the wider (home) entertainment industry while cinemas, theatres, pubs, clubs and bars remain closed, too. The coincidental UK release of the Disney+ streaming service only added to the multitude of options already available.
Left with huge gaps in their content planners that nobody could have foreseen, social media managers and content agencies are then presented a chance to listen to fans even more and connect on a deeper, human level, as the shared experience in quarantine now encompasses over a third of the global population.
As we cope with this physical separation of tight-knit fanbases and the sudden slowdown of public life in an increasingly bustling ecosystem, it has been heart-warming to see how the sporting industry has responded in its own way to keep spirits high. Through the healing power of social solidarity, sport will continue to bring people together even though we are momentarily apart. The (hopefully swift) resuscitation of the Experience Economy will undoubtedly be cathartic in itself.