Coming ‘Round the Quarter Turn

What Did We Learn And What Are We Watching For: Some Thoughts From Those Inside

With the end of June upon us, we not only reach the end of Q2 2020, but also celebrate the end of Q1 S.C. Since COVID-19.

After three months the likes of which like none of us have ever seen, the sports world slowly returns to the field. Meanwhile, sports business looks to regain its foothold after a pandemic packed a decade’s worth of learnings, pitfalls and pivots into 12 weeks.

We had to adjust not just to a world without live games, but a world which has suddenly embraced a digital and streaming space that most knew was coming, but few saw arriving universally by the middle of 2020.

From the Great Pandemic to Black Lives Matter, from shelter-in-place to the rocky economy, change has been afoot. Changes have been both thrust upon the industry and sought out by those embracing the disruption.

Pausing briefly to reflect, all has not gone exactly as predicted.

Esports and gaming learnings; Women’s sports look re-seize momentum

The esports and gaming space, for example, has certainly seen tremendous gains in brand engagement. Twitch, the esports-focused streamer owned by Amazon, saw all key metrics jump significantly in March and then explode in April compared to pre-pandemic February.

The total takeover of sports that many thought would happen immediately thanks to a migration to a younger, gamer-friendly audience and a universe of sports fans seeking live competition? Not quite. Even success poster child Twitch has seen a leveling off of users. Though, who wouldn’t take a “new normal” with monthly averages of 2.2 million concurrent viewers taking in 1.5 billion hours of content?

Table 1 Twitch usage past 6 months
Month Avg concur viewers % chg Avg concur channels % chg Hours watched % chg Active streamers % chg
Jun 2020* 2,263,285 -4.1% 93,807 -6.5% 1,495M -14.9% n/a n/a
May 2020 2,359,765 -5.1% 100,364 7.2% 1,756M -1.9% 7,398,081 2.6%
Apr 2020 2,486,264 51.9% 93,618 41.9% 1,790M 47.0% 7,213,644 42.0%
Mar 2020 1,637,064 16.1% 65,976 22.6% 1,218M 24.0% 5,080,031 35.3%
Feb 2020 1,410,516 3.9% 53,816 1.9% 982M -2.8% 3,753,539 -4.6%
Jan 2020 1,357,375 14.7% 52,821 16.0% 1,010M 14.8% 3,935,308 17.3%
Dec 2019 1,183,198 -3.2% 45,554 -0.2% 880M 0.0% 3,353,608 4.8%

* = Current month’s numbers as of Jun 28; % chg = Percent change month over month (source: TwitchTracker)

Now is a good time to remember, as Michael Pachter, an analyst at Wedbush Securities, told the Washington Post, “A person who was playing zero hours a week and they’re now playing one or two, you may have won them over forever.” Going forward, finding ways to continue to engage these new fans is of utmost importance.

Women’s sports, which many experts declared primed for success in 2020, took a hit like all other platforms with the shutdown. With the return of the NWSL and WNBA, plus the launch of professional softball and indoor volleyball through the new initiative, Athletes Unlimited, and later this summer the AVP, women’s sports are working to carefully regain the momentum many saw as March began.

“With all the uncertainty, we know one thing…sport is still a galvanizer for consumers, brands and media companies. That has not changed.”

– Chris Lencheski

Even with those optimistic thoughts, storms continue to brew on the horizon. We don’t know exactly what fans will watch with a rush back in the coming weeks, how much brands will spend without a massive onsite activation, and frankly which sports will actually finish due to the uncertainty of the pandemic once things really get rolling in a few weeks.

Experts weigh in

“The best thing about this time will come from those who have been able to take a breath, look at the global landscape, address the assets and prepare as best you can for the longer term versus the shorter term,” says longtime sports marketing professional Chris Lencheski, CEO, Winning Streak Sports, A Granite Bridge Partners Company, and professor at Columbia University. “With all the uncertainty, we know one thing…sport is still a galvanizer for consumers, brands and media companies. That has not changed. How that engagement happens is adjusting, and we as a resilient business will adjust, we have to keep as fluid as possible.”

With fluidity as a key, we asked two other experts for their best examples of success and trends for Q2 2020, and what they have their eye on going forward.

Media and Digital Brand Success: Jay Sharman
SharmanTeamworks Media

Jay Sharman is the co-founder of TeamWorks Media, whose work has expanded greatly during the pandemic with businesses like La Vida Baseball and the work they do for other digital properties like Big Ten Network.

Sharman shared three “watch and learn” points with us:

  1. Adaptability, speed & cost efficiency – Challenging times favor disruptor brands and I’ve seen that with the Drone Racing League creating an NBC Sports Network weekly series with a virtual racing series that is performing really well. Yet, large companies, traditionally slower and risk adverse based in part on sheer size, are exercising new muscles. Turner Sports gets my standing ovation for “The Match,” which was conceived in a snap, grabbed almost all of the sports mindshare and crushed it sponsorship wise. It should feed near-term innovation. A final trend comes from the CFO’s desk who is rightfully asking “Why are we paying 8-figures for studios and high field production costs when we just proved we can get people to tune-in with at-home studio set-ups?”
  2. Embracing short-term digital media lifecycles – A year ago, creating a media brand for a several-month stretch would’ve been seen as nuts. Today, I point to Sport Hiatus, a digital media brand focused on innovation and industry trends during COVID-19, as a model of seizing the “uncertainty white space.” As we’ve all experienced, months can feel like years, and creating businesses within short windows is a trend that should continue. With big media executives forced to be on their computers, it’s also changed the perception of digital media from a linear model add-on, to the mature, always on demand economy it has been. I’d be remiss if I didn’t give love to our own La Vida Baseball company for daily, live content featuring 20-plus MLBers per month.
  3. Athlete Activism As Brand – Athletes as media brands became hyper-accelerated during this time as athlete’s social media platforms became primary content distribution vehicles for fans and the sports community. As the Black Lives Matter movement grew exponentially, athlete and sports personalities’ causes will accelerate purpose marketing. Brand affiliation with athletes has become much more complex. FS1’s Emmanuel Acho set the bar for building his own brand with the incredibly compelling and brilliant, “Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man” series.

Women’s Sports Landscape: Caiti Donovan

Next, we asked Caiti Donovan to assess the women’s sports landscape. Donovan, the co-founder of SheIS, a fast growing platform empowering all efforts around women’s sports, took a look back, and a little forward. She points out that even during the hiatus, engagement for women and girls keeps growing in leaps and bounds, especially as we just passed the anniversary of the adoption of Title IX in the U.S. SheIS also hasn’t missed a beat, recently launching the SheIS Clubhouse, as well as launching an all-digital v2 of their “STEM Meets Sports work” in August.

Donovan’s five keys:

  1. NWSL Partnerships – I cannot express how pumped I am about the Google announcement. This has been a long time coming for women’s sports–a staple for men’s sports for so long, but a real barrier to entry for fans who are interested in watching women’s sports. I genuinely hope this becomes a model that the other leagues follow. Beyond that, I’ve been impressed with P&G/Secret and their continued efforts in the women’s sports space, including becoming the presenting sponsors of the NWSL’s Challenge Cup. I’m expecting some great virtual executions from them over the next month of play.
  2. WNBA Draft The draft itself being the leader as the first-ever completely virtual draft is obviously a big feat especially given how quickly they had to pivot their teams to accomplish it, but I was especially impressed with the marked improvements in measurement that were displayed after the draft–leading to stories like this being able to be written. That kind of attention to data and analytics is something I’ve seen a sharp increase in over the past year–not coincidentally, I’m sure, tied to Cathy [Engelbert] taking over.

    Golf Course Design was one of more than a dozen activities Girls Golf added during the pandemic; Shown: Leela from Orchard Park, N.Y.’s submission
  3. LPGA/USGA Girls Golf “Home on the Range” The LPGA and USGA developed this kids activity page back in April as a way to give kids something to do while trapped at home. From a core objective standpoint, I’ve seen other teams and leagues doing some similar kid-focused digital work–for example, Sky Blue FC‘s “Kids Club,” which has eight downloadable volumes on the site with more activities sent via newsletter. I really like the sheer amount of content and interactive nature of the page that LPGA/USGA was able to achieve in one space.
  4. WPLL Futures Digital Training CampThis is certainly not the only one of its kind, but WPLL was one of the first training and development camps that I saw fully digitize pretty early on after COVID became a fully recognized pandemic. Many, many other individuals have gone the digital route, but this was one of the earliest and most effective during the early stages of pandemic disruption.
  5. Natalie Spooner’s Big Blue Quarantine Couch (IG Live series)A great example of an individual athlete taking the initiative and using the virtual space to create meaningful–and fun!–content and connection with her fans. What started with mainly interviewing her Team Canada teammates has now budded into an array of guests and her even signing on brand sponsors who were not engaged in the space beforehand.

Where do we go from here?

With scenarios changing daily, there is no one path forward. We simply must remain fancentric, remembering to let fan engagement guide us.

“Are we anywhere near out of the woods yet?” Lencheski ponders rhetorically. “No. But as someone who has witnessed all forms of challenges in the marketplace during a career, I see opportunity to be seized for those willing to rise. Digital and social, new forms of engaged media, every aspect tied to women’s athletics, cause marketing and social responsibility are all areas of engagement as we collectively figure this out. It was a quarter unlike any other, and now we see where we go from here.”