‘The audience is still there’: How U.K. sports outlets pivoted to branded content, social video to keep fans engaged as seasons were delayed

UK publishers

Live sport has been coming back to screens over the last two months, and like the U.K.’s Premier League, it has seen a spike in linear TV numbers due to sports-starved audiences. While that lift might be predictable, what sports franchises and publishers did during the coronavirus lockdown likely helped keep fans on their viewing rosters.

The lack of live sports’ advertising opportunities on linear TV has broadened the scope of branded content partnerships — expanding the nature of traditional sponsorship deals beyond badging — and pushed advertisers to get more comfortable with programming on social platforms and fan-driven content.

Like with all coronavirus-driven trends, this has been an acceleration rather than a change maker, said Richard Barker, managing director at M&C Saatchi Sport & Entertainment.

“Sponsorship famously falls down if you come in and out of it, but the pace of innovation has been unbelievable,” he said. “Sports is still a hard-to-reach audience, but the audience is still there. The lack of an in-stadium audience impacts the value and quality of the product, but sports like football have an enormous ecosystem of blogs and players. Most brands are still committed to the passion of it and a sponsorship strategy.”

While coronavirus canceled live sports for months, most broadcasters and sports channels dabbled in user-generated or archive footage to fill linear and digital feeds and keep audiences entertained.

That’s the route taken by digital content studio and broadcaster Little Dot Studios, which manages upwards of 30 sports social media channels including U.K. football competition the Emirates FA Cup, Italian football league Serie A and rugby competition Premiership Rugby. Typically content during football’s summer off-season includes archive footage on its social channels, looking back at last season’s highlights and what’s coming up next.

“We focussed on the nostalgia element we thought people would be turning to, reliving past stories and great moments,” said Robbie Spargo, head of sport at Little Dot Studios.

To recreate the event feeling it streamed old FA Cup games from the 1990s and 2000s once a week, supplemented with several recaps and story-focused highlights of specific players or teams. On Facebook, the audience has grown to over 2.1 million, particularly in older age groups who had watched the matches first-time around. The interaction rate on Facebook posts has jumped from 0.09% in December to 0.84% in July, according to CrowdTangle.

The momentum was also spurred by clubs, fans and federations joining in. During a replay of the 2014 Arsenal versus Hull City game, the video had 400,000 YouTube views, three-quarters of which were live views, thanks to the Arsenal football club amplifying the stream. Spargo said the watch time was 30 minutes, higher than general YouTube watch times of three minutes or so for longer-form videos, he said. 

The increase in viewership and the commercial potential for platforms like YouTube has meant that ad revenue for Little Dot has held relatively well and better than expected, but Spargo wouldn’t share specifics. Little Dot sells some of its YouTube inventory direct, meaning it can negotiate higher rates. The studio’s own sales team has broadened the scope of digital services that it offers brands. 

“Digital has become more of a focus within the sports industry,” said Spargo. “Federations have a roster of commercial partners that from March to recently have not received exposure through TV from player appearances, there has been a renewed focus on where they can get their value,” he said, adding “commercial partners are getting closer to digital assets, it’s the coming of age for branded content digital sponsorship. Previously digital had not been seen to pull its weight compared with other assets.”

With less traditional inventory available, lockdown has increased the value of branded content partnerships for both teams and clubs who are missing out on match-day revenue and the advertisers who are missing out on agreed deliverables, agreed Aaron Duckmanton, global head of marketing of social video monetization platform Grabyo.

To counter that, for example, Southampton Football Club grew the amount of digital-only match-day content, including live builds-ups, team announcements, in-match stats and real-time highlights. It’s also working with a number of branded content partners like eToro, Domino’s Pizza and Utlilta. 

“The rise of video viewing across social and digital platforms has driven advertisers to become more involved in authentic, fan-centric content,” he added. “Live social video drives engagement, longer watch times and ultimately more exposure.”

Fewer people in stadiums and an onus on social media has pushed clubs to build new content formats that are almost guaranteed to get views from sports-starved fans, at least in the short term. During Manchester City’s new ‘We’re Not Really Here’ matchday shows, fans tune in to live social broadcasts to connect with their community and access more context around the club. 

But the benefits of digital targeting and broader partnerships won’t fully make up for the losses in linear live sports. If seasons continue to face delays, there will be inevitable clashes in scheduling, not being able to get broadcast time and relevant commercial exposure will result in financial losses felt across sport over the next few years. 

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The worry isn’t so much that live sports in the U.K. would get shut down again, unlike increasing fears in the U.S., but how to cut through the glut of sports fixtures over the next 12 months.    

“How do you maintain audience retention and attention when there are bigger and more powerful brands that shout louder?” said Spargo. “A lot of that is about content planning and strategy, working out your voice and what to say, content that expresses that and amplification strategies around it.”

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