Much has been written in recent weeks about a nation and its economy facing unprecedented times. Most of us working in the sports industry have never seen anything like it and hopefully, never will again.

While the nature of this disruption is unique, significant social and economic uncertainty is nothing new.  Nielsen Sports new report on the Impact of Covid-19 on the Social Media Landscape shows that business and consumers are actually behaving much as they always have done in a crisis scenario.

Following the 2008/09 recession, business behaviour towards marketing and advertising was characterised by long-term brand media spend reducing by 15-20%. Conversely, short-term digital spend shot up by 20%, and a move towards big data was replaced by short termism. Elaborate brand building plans were often replaced by temporary promotional strategies too. (Source: IPA, Peter Field, Linkedin: Advertising in a downturn – A report of key findings from an IPA seminar)

Affordability and survival are big drivers of business behaviour and leadership thinking right now. But what was notable from the last recession was that those who avoided ‘going dark’ saw much reduced profit loss and quicker recovery times. It paid dividends to maintain a share of voice and market spend.  Brands that chose to speak through genuine acts of solidarity and giving fared went on to see stronger growth in recovery. Some rode out the storm by engaging in feel-good campaigns, innovation and continued share of profile. Brands who implemented long-term strategy, thrived in recovery.

Fast forward a decade or so. Look at the collective outpouring of appreciation for our frontline workers, the exploits of Captain Tom Moore and the boom in virtual communities. Big business has been refocusing production efforts to serve the nation. This all demonstrates how we come together during the toughest of times to drive positive change. Campaigns like the 2.6 Challenge or the Big Night In further demonstrate our desire as a nation to do something positive, to be part of something bigger. Sport and entertainment provide the vehicle through which to engage en masse, even when we are socially isolated.

Nielsen’s report highlights that while in lockdown, our reliance on social channels for consumption has dramatically increased. Social content viewing has surged by 60%. Meanwhile, social sharing communities and content-generating platforms such as TikTok and YouTube have seen the biggest month on month rises. 46% of the UK population have also turned to Instagram for sports news and content; a level never seen before by this channel. Meanwhile, its parent brand Facebook continues to dominate as the number one social channel for sports content and news.

Content grounded in humanity, expressions of support, home fitness and entertainment sharing are currently driving usage, as well as crossovers of technology for sharing real-life activity.  In sports and music, real life and virtual performances are becoming the norm.  The convergence of sports, entertainment and technology is happening at an unprecedented pace, accelerating what has been seen by many as inevitable for some time. Post-crisis, the modernisation of the global sports industry may have taken some giant leaps, but only if sports owners use this time wisely. It is critical they invest in understanding the consumer, as well as appropriate investment in capability and the capital infrastructure that can vastly improve engagement.

However, there is evidence of rights holders going dark.  This is in spite of the demand for content from fans increasing through the lockdown period; March a rise of up to 14% month on month from February. The everyday challenge for CEO’s and executive teams has become looking across all budgets for savings to ensure longer term viability. For partners, this is dramatically reducing branded coverage and compounding value losses during this sporting hiatus. Future contract negotiations for many rights holders must be a concern. 

Influencer activity through sports and lifestyle is also dramatically down, -52% in the case of the latter, creating an immediate shift in the marketplace. This may be due to rights holders and influencers not wishing to appear frivolous during such challenging times.  Ironically, those who are posting branded content are not seeing a backlash, but instead significant uplifts in performance, with +34% increases in views.

Generating added value must be a priority at this time. Brands should be focussed on driving what fans really want and can then look to maintain stable commercial partnerships in the future.

There are still numerous examples of platforms and rights holders looking to create value for fans. Last weekend the worlds of entertainment and gaming collided once again as Fortnite and Travis Scott staged a live in-game concert. It was a virtual spectacle that drew a staggering 12.3million views. A further 3.5m fans tuned in to watch Diogo Jota triumph against Liverpool’s Trent Alexander Arnold in the closing stages of the English Premier Esports Invitational. The tournament was broadcasted across Facebook, You Tube and Sky TV. 1.4million alone tuned into Liverpool FC’s Facebook platform to watch Trent’s semi-final clash against Raheem Sterling. Replicating the drama of a real-life match, a nail-biting golden goal finish saw Liverpool’s fan-favourite come out on top.

Formula E also staged its first broadcast online, with results not incomparable to the first week of the Formula 1 virtual series. Again, Facebook stepped up to provide the platform for millions to watch the action. 

These and many other examples across sports and entertainment demonstrate that consumer appetite for normalcy and content have not waned. However, habits and behaviours have however shifted. Nielsen data shows that long format videos are over performing now compared to 6 months ago when short-form content was king. For example, F1’s YouTube’ channel 40% average rise of video views 10 to 20-minute videos, and a gigantic 89% jump for +20-min videos.

So where does this leave brands, rights holders and fans for now and the future?

Rays of light have emerged this week with the potential acceleration of a return to professional sport, albeit behind closed doors. This creates a new set of challenges for those sports as to how to mitigate match day losses while simultaneously adding value to fans and sponsors. 

History says continue. It is key to communicate, adapt and innovate, subsequently building brand equity through delivering humanistic campaigns and genuine displays of well-placed support.  Yet notable examples such as Coca Cola and AirBnB have chosen to cease all marketing spend for the time being. Meanwhile, Proctor & Gamble (among others) have made clear statements that now is not the time to stop spending for good purpose.

Despite the gloom, it is surprising for many that the first signs of global social easing are focused on the resumption of sport and entertainment. Perhaps it demonstrates the power of these platforms for creating positivity and uniting communities as well as providing a vehicle for social release. Sport matters, and governments around the world seem to recognise this.

A new history is being written every day. As a nation we are doing what we always do in challenging times: coming together, rolling up our sleeves and getting on with finding a new normal. People are craving enjoyment and the need to be entertained. The history books show that businesses who can afford to think human-first, facilitate conversation and a form long-term plan with consumers at heart, will be the first to recover. Not to mention be stronger, long into the future. 

For more information on the trends we’re seeing, download our report or contact Alastair Marks at

Nielsen Insight Sources: Nielsen Fan Insights platform Social Content Ratings platform Nielsen Athlete and Influencer platform

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