Sports broadcasters learn to innovate amid small crowds in COVID-19 pandemic

Chia Han Keong
·Editor
·5-min read
Screens showing supporters watching a live broadcast of the 2019/20 Russian Football Premier League match between Dynamo Moscow and CSKA Moscow at VTB Arena.
Screens showing supporters watching a live broadcast of the 2019/20 Russian Football Premier League match between Dynamo Moscow and CSKA Moscow at VTB Arena. (PHOTO: Gavriil Grigorov\TASS via Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — While sporting events are slowly re-commencing around the world, the absence of fans from venues, due to safety precautions amid the COVID-19 pandemic, has made it difficult for broadcasters to capture the emotional resonance of the sports.

Yet, the pandemic has also given the broadcasters opportunities to change their formulaic approaches to coverage, and find innovate ways to cater the event to each and every fan.

What will sports broadcast coverage look like as the world looks to step out of the shadows of COVID-19 in 2021? Paolo Cuttorelli, vice-president and general manager of revenue and customer management provider Evergent, gave his opinion to Yahoo Singapore.

Q: With Covid-19 curbing the size of crowds at sports events, arenas and stadiums, are broadcasters finding difficulty with the lack of atmosphere and excitement at key sports events? Why is it crucial to project excitement to sports TV audiences?

A: With strict restrictions and country lockdowns in place across the globe, it makes it even more difficult for broadcasters and event organisers to transcribe emotions and excitement through a screen.

Sports TV as an industry has multiple stakeholders; broadcasters and sports teams, advertisers, sponsors, sports brands, and technology enablers like Evergent, and many more. In order to succeed and remain profitable, these businesses rely quite heavily on viewership and fan engagement.

There’s no arguing that the global situation has changed the lay of the land for sports broadcasting, challenging producers and broadcasters on how they best engage and interact with fans and creating new fan experiences in the process.

Having said that, the silver lining for these businesses is that they now have a great opportunity to reach hundreds of thousands new viewers worldwide via different streaming platforms. Eventually the live experiences will come back and I would expect this to become the norm again sometime next year.

How are broadcasters attempting to “liven up” sports events without spectators?

One way broadcasters are attempting to “liven up” the experience is by making the behind-the-scenes footages more accessible for fans.

The English Premier League, for instance, is considering allowing broadcasters to put interview cameras in the dressing rooms during half- and full-time to capture real-time conversations and commentary from the football players.

This year, the Indian Premier League is using WhatsApp bots to keep the fans at the heart of the action with live updates and comments of their favourite cricket matches.

Another way is by giving more power to the fans. Services like Amazon Prime Video have partnered with platforms such as Twitch (also an Amazon company) to simulcast Premier League games. The Twitch platform has its roots in e-sports and it allows fans to communicate with one another and comment on the game via a live chat, as well as engage with their favourite streamers.

In Austria, the Formula One Grand Prix created a virtual Fan Stand where fans could send hashtags with their favourite drivers’ car number, allowing TV spectators to “live-cheer” for their favourite race teams.

Last but not least, broadcasters are leveraging technology to simulate fans’ fandom. Some of them, like Sky Sports, are using sound effects such as artificial crowd noise. In May, a Danish football team invited its fans to join a giant Zoom Watch Party for the first game of the season, and projected the pictures in the stadium to cheer up the players. 10,000 fans e-watched the game, while the TV audience would have the semblance of a crowded stadium.

What are the takeaways from this situation? What have broadcasters learnt from having to deal with sports events with no/few fans?

The main takeaway from this situation is that broadcasters can enhance fans’ fandom by allowing them one step closer to the action through the use of technology.

Players and athletes are taking an active role in engaging with their team’s fan base, whether it’s on social media or during and after the game through Live Q&A. The interaction with fans is essential, as well as leveraging technology to make the streamed games and races more engaging and memorable, ensuring that fans and viewers watch the entire event and hopefully subscribe to the platform.

By creating memorable experiences for fans, streaming providers create a unique experience that draws in viewers and reduces the likelihood of churn.

Over the past few months, some of our customers here at Evergent have been carrying sports content and offering great fan experiences alongside streaming matches. The response has been overwhelmingly positive.

My view is that the pandemic created a lot of pent-up demand for sports because the world went so many months without any major sporting events. With many people still under lockdown measures and other restrictions I think they’re craving the real-life drama that only live sports can provide.

Looking ahead, do you see the situation changing in 2021? Will broadcasters be more selective with sports events if TV audiences are slow to come back due to lack of atmosphere/excitement in the programmes? How will broadcasters work with event organisers to ensure they get their audience back?

In fact, broadcasters are doing an excellent job at capturing the emotional resonance of sport. The digital world we live in is inspiring their creative initiatives. TV audiences are still engaged and the sports industry is, generally speaking, doing quite well. Another aspect to keep in mind is that this situation is a great opportunity for broadcasters to generate more revenue and attract viewers.

As sports events gather thousands of spectators, it’s certain that restrictions due to the pandemic won’t be fully lifted in the next few months, which give broadcasters a little more time to engage fans and audiences before transitioning to full operational sports events which I expect we’ll see more of into 2021.