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Fostering Your Fanbase Through a Pandemic

6/18/2020
— Allison Ren, WE Red Bridge 

A version of this piece originally appeared on Yutang Sports

 

It is no surprise that sporting events, which bring together large crowds, have halted as the world practices social distancing and stays home through the pandemic. Although seasons are on hold and major sporting events postponed, fans are hungry for action and connection with their favorite teams. Without fresh footage, the question for team and league communicators as well as players is how to stay top of mind with their fans.

Training does not stop in the off-season, and neither should growing a fanbase. Although large events remain suspended or slowly return in a different form, organizations have plenty of methods to deepen connections with their fans.

 

GET CREATIVE WITH CONTENT

The lack of live games does not mean fans are not engaged. Fans are hungrier for content and consuming more digital content than before. This calls for organizations to increase rather than decrease the quantity and quality of their content production to ensure consistent and effective engagement with fans while live sports are on hold.

Dust off the archive

Without a doubt, there is no shortage of content to pull from. Take this time to indulge fans’ nostalgia by revisiting some of the team’s defining moments. Beyond running repeats, share the stories that shaped the organization into what it is today and deepen fans’ bond with the organization’s heritage.

Two leagues embracing this approach are LaLiga and NBA. LaLiga has filled the gap left by the suspended LaLiga Santander season by feeding its fans with archive footage, esports and social media content to keep them engaged. In China, LaLiga collaborated with its broadcaster iQiyi and invited influential commentators to revisit historic matches, reliving some of the sport’s most memorable moments.

Globally, through its #NBATogether campaign, the basketball league has dropped the paywall on its NBA League Pass to provide fans with access to replays of the most recent season and classic games and content, keeping the connection alive between fans and their favorite players and teams.

Lean into players

Use fans’ bonds with individual players to humanize the team, giving players the chance to show their lives and talents off the field. In China, Nike showcased basketball star Yi Jianlian in its recent yoga campaign, dispelling myths that the sport is a woman’s activity. The campaign highlights Jianlian’s personal stories with yoga as part of his training and how the sport is for anyone wanting to increase their mobility and agility and ease of practice, even from home.

Many high-profile players around the world are celebrities and have the clout to influence the behavior of the masses. In China, Ping Pong Olympian Zhang Jike set out to debunk myths about food hygiene and contamination of products from the city of Wuhan and surrounding Hubei province, the epicenter of COVID-19. Zhang hosted a two-hour live broadcast on Kuaishou, China’s second-most popular broadcasting app, in late April featuring 17 local delicacies including Re Gan Noodle, Crayfish and Lichuan Black Tea. The show attracted 19 million views and 1.3 million comments, helping rebuild the credibility of some of the region’s signature food products.

Elsewhere in the world, Golden State Warriors superstar Stephen Curry is using his authority for good. Curry’s Instagram Live chat with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the United States’ foremost expert on infectious diseases, attracted an audience of over 50,000 viewers, including former U.S. President Barack Obama. The live session aimed at raising awareness of the global health crisis and encouraged fans to take social distancing and shelter-in-place measures seriously amid the pandemic.

 

DRIVE IMPACT THROUGH PURPOSE

Teams and clubs are the glue of many communities around the globe, and now is their chance to step up and support those in need close to home. As our WE Brands in Motion research points out, Chinese consumers believe brands can provide stability and have an obligation to take a stand on issues that matter to them. By acting with purpose, organizations can further support their fans when they need it most.

Redirect your efforts

Even though China is well into the recovery phase, the destruction left by COVID-19 has impacted many. As donations begin to taper off, continued efforts to support local communities can and will go a long way. Football club FC Barcelona is one of many teams stepping up to answer the call. The club made its facilities, including Camp Nou stadium, available to Spanish health authorities. It has also partnered with the Red Cross on its T’Acompanyem a Casa (We accompany you at home) program to support the local senior community. In China, the club collaborated with its business partners Taiping, Mission Hills Group and Tencent to get medical equipment where it was needed most and created special-edition t-shirts to raise funds for medical supplies as part of the integrated #strongertogether campaign.

Encourage fan participation

Like players, organizations have a level of influence among fans to drive positive action. By supporting a cause authentic to the team and getting fans involved, it gives fans another way to connect themselves to the organization. In China, Inter Milan’s owner Suning auctioned off special jerseys worn by Inter players during the Milan Derby with proceeds benefiting COVID-19 response efforts. In the end, the auction saw over 700,000 fans get involved in the action.

 

PLAN FOR A SLOW RECOVERY

In some parts of the world, sporting events are beginning their slow return, mostly to empty stadiums, but it will take a while before spectators feel comfortable enough to watch a game in a packed arena. This requires organizations to step back and reassess their strategy of staying connected with fans.

Embrace the at-home experience

While fans enjoy games and matches from home, this gives teams and leagues the chance to think of ways to re-create the excitement and community of a game on the sofa instead of the stands.

Ping Pong star Zhang Jike once again shined in using the latest technology to bring together a live table tennis match and online audience participation. This experimental match, which attracted over 300,000 viewers, incorporated augmented reality for a more immersive experience while putting more control in viewers’ hands, such as allowing them to control the calling of water breaks.

LaLiga is altering how it presents games behind closed doors. Some of the measures it is looking to implement include capturing the conversations of players, coaches and referees from pitchside microphones and adjusting camera angles for a more immersive at-home viewing experience.

Remain resilient

With an uncertain future ahead, it is essential to remain agile and ready to pivot the engagement strategy with the changing environment. Use this time to prepare and adopt contingency plans and new ways to keep the connection alive.

Sports, which rely heavily on large crowds congregating in cramped spaces, will be forced to adapt to whatever the next normal might entail. Although fans around the world have more time to consume content, there are plenty of opportunities in the meantime for teams to embrace digital communication channels to strengthen fanbases from the sidelines.

 

*FC Barcelona and LaLiga are WE Red Bridge clients.