Football without fans can open up new opportunities for brands

Major European football leagues, including the Premier League, are planning to recommence seasons without fans. Technology unlocks new ways for brands to engage with fans during digital match days.

Technology can unlock opportunities for brands when football returns behind closed doors, says Dan French
Technology can unlock opportunities for brands when football returns behind closed doors, says Dan French

We’re desperate to be entertained and, for a lot of us, that means the return of the beautiful game to break the COVID-19 cycle of home-schooling and daily Number 10 briefings.

As the Premier League and EFL maintain their silence since the postponement of the leagues (until 7 May, at time of writing), Germany's Bundesliga will return at the start of May behind closed doors.

This appears the most likely scenario for the Premier League, with speculation suggesting the season's remaining 92 games could resume behind closed doors from 12 June.

We all understand the value of sport in terms of bringing fans and communities together, so what role can we play as marketeers if live sport returns behind closed doors?

The return of football doesn’t mean we’re out of the woods with COVID-19. While fans can be allowed to make emotional decisions, rights-holders and brands must demonstrate a human touch with any activity.

A recent survey by Ipsos outlined that consumers want brands to be present and invest in consumer relationships, providing truth and positive impact in terms of their response to COVID-19.

We see live sport return across Asia, but cultural differences suggest it’s highly unlikely we’ll introduce robots and cardboard cut-outs of fans to the stands like Taiwan’s professional baseball league.

Brands and rights-holders should find the right places to play with purpose; maximising digital platforms and technology. Innovation needs to add value to the experience without self-serving undertones of monetisation.

We need to disrupt the culture of football to create a role for fans on a digital match day. What could this look like?

Free-pm fixture

A recent Edelman survey found that 71 per cent of consumers agree that brands and companies that place profits over people during this crisis will lose their trust forever. Early rumours report that the Premier League is reluctantly considering free-to-air access until the end of the season on BT and Sky Sports’ YouTube channels. Will this mean the introduction of a new rights package for the 2020/2021 season introducing a widely requested live weekend 3pm fixture?

Greater access for fans

Rights-holders will be expected to bring fans closer to the game with their match-day broadcast. Can fans be given a glimpse into the changing room? Can we expect a 30-second live feed at half-time for viewers to hear the thoughts of managers? Early rumours also suggest it will be required to conduct interviews at half-time, breaking from tradition of the obligatory post-match interview.

Fan engagement platforms

Whether OTT or direct with broadcasters, we expect to see platforms like Monterosa developing more technology that builds direct audience relationships that drive value. Player Layer is technology that enables fans to engage with live action. With a penalty awarded, a simple 'yes or no' function appears to ask the fan whether the player will score. If the answer is correct, the fan receives a redemption voucher at Papa John’s to order online.

More data, more discussion

US tech companies such as Second Spectrum aim to personalise the experience of watching live sport – they argue that, although it has shifted to digital channels, the experience hasn’t changed since the 1936 Berlin Olympics. They combine AI and player tracking to offer a richer and more personal viewing experience, integrating live emojis and reactions on-screen as a player scores, or live data that visualises shot speed or pass accuracy instantly.

Second Spectrum Soccer Lookbook from Second Spectrum on Vimeo

Emoji-enabled chants

Premier League clubs have discussed the use of fake crowd noise if games are played behind closed doors. Can clubs, rights-holders and brands partner Facebook to correlate second-screen social conversation to be represented as live in-crowd chants? More engagement means more volume, with 'thumb down' showing your disdain for a refereeing decision, while bespoke emojis are tailored to club chants.

In the (VR) dugout

I’ve always wanted to sit in the row behind the home team's dugout to understand the view of the manager and the exchanges between players and coaching staff. VR enables us all to experience this, creating more than just a new camera angle for fans. Is this the moment to make Facebook’s Oculus Connect ubiquitous?

Digital tailgating

Engrained in US sports culture, the notion of arriving hours ahead of kick-off to a stadium has never really landed that well elsewhere. Can rights-holders bring music and sport together like Marshmallow and Fortnite providing live music by headline acts in the build-up to kick-off?

The ePub with no last orders!

With platforms such as Zoom and House Party, how can brands like Budweiser and William Hill provide the ultimate at-home experience for fans as they share their accumulator and a Bud pre-match with club legends?

Parking the bus

Could consumer electronics brands follow the example of Danish Superliga leaders FC Midtjylland? The club set up large projection screens in its car park for 2,000 vehicles to drive in and enjoy the match.

These examples might not be for everyone, but they highlight a playing field of innovation, albeit borne out of necessity, to be embraced.

My advice is to be considered in your actions, be true to your brand values and collaborate with your stakeholders, whether that be rights-holders or agencies.

Dan French is SVP of PR & influencer marketing at 160over90, part of the Endeavor network that includes WME and IMG.

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