The latest edition of the UK Sport Industry Spotlight - a series of interactive, insight-driven, online panel sessions to aid those wanting to upskill in sport business - saw the brains behind some of sport’s most recent spectacles take a deep dive into the world of major events.
On this occasion, the panel provided insight into what makes a great event, as well as looking to what the future of such mass gatherings might look like when the world restarts after the coronavirus lockdown.
The panel was made of up Steve Elworthy, Director - ECB Events, The ECB (and former Proteas cricketer); Alexandra Willis, Head of Communications, Content and Digital, AELTC & The Championships, Wimbledon; Kelhem Salter, Senior Director, Growth & Strategy, Major League Baseball; and Lindsay Impett, Former Event Director, Vitality Netball World Cup 2019.
Sport is better together
The panel started by discussing some of the other major moments shortlisted for Event of the Year at the UK Sport Industry Awards 2020, and the panel was largely in agreement that sporting events are always better when organisers collaborate.
The AELTC’s Willis said: “Everyone’s referenced collaborating with each other. Sport’s bigger when it works together and what’s amazing about the shortlist is that every event to some extent had some role to play in the other happening, and it’s maybe the first time that we’ve managed to be so integrated and co-ordinated.”
Elworthy also spoke to that point when discussing the collaboration that took place between the host nation and the international federation when staging the Cricket World Cup 2019 in England.
“A real key element was working very closely with the ICC - as the international federation - and ECB who were the host country,” he said. “As an event in the middle you could deliver the tournament and it would be fine, but the real success of it comes when you really integrate what you’re trying to achieve with the local home board and what the ICC were trying to do. That was the long-term strategy from an ECB perspective - they were really thinking about what their next steps were from 2020 and beyond, and that was a real critical success factor for us from a fan engagement point of view.”
Mitigating the impact of the coronavirus pandemic
When sporting events do return, and when fans are able to safely go back to stadiums, the short-term impact of the pandemic and its ensuing lockdown is, as yet, unknown.
Organisers will have to understand what fans want and need in order to feel comfortable attending events again, and will need to put measures in place to reassure them that it is safe in line with government and scientific advice.
Salter spoke of the uncertainty of the present moment, but also offered some insight on what will drive the public’s response when events can go ahead again.
He said: “I think so much of it is down to the individual’s mindset and that will be determined by a whole bunch of collective stuff like the media. I find it very hard to know at this point or have a very good sense of how people are going to feel. Maybe I’ve missed it, but I haven’t seen a tonne of polling about how people will react - questions like: will you go to a sports stadium or a fan zone in six months’ time? Maybe it’s too early for that and everyone has far bigger priorities to worry about, but it’s going to be really important for all of us to see how that starts to shape up.”
Fan behaviour is not the only thing organisers will have to deal with in the short-term, however. The financial implications of the pandemic are also an unknown for sport, but it’s clear that events that rely on broadcast income rather than ticket and hospitality revenue look in a stronger position to return behind closed doors.
Impett, who is now Director of Events, World Lacrosse, having served as Event Director for the Vitality Netball World Cup 2019, said: “One thing we have to look at is the viability of having less people in stadia and what the overall costs are that are associated with that, because the costs are not going to exponentially decrease with less people necessarily. So, it’s going to be a real balancing act as to playing behind closed doors or having a fan zone which is of ‘x’ size that means you’re getting the return on investment that you need to put in. You’d need to take on more space potentially, but can’t get as many people in there, so it’s all a balance in the long-run.”
Events will also have to think about the public’s desire for physical experiences over digital ones once the world returns to something approaching normality. Will the digital-first nature of our lockdown experiences change how fans want to consume live sporting events?
“I’m a bit on the fence on this one, because I don’t know quite where I stand on it,” said Willis, “but I think there’s no doubt that we’re going to appreciate seeing things in the flesh when we are able to sit and watch sport in the flesh. Maybe a bit of screen fatigue might come in. Connectivity is essential to running your event in an efficient operational way, but maybe we’ll all be a little less distracted and that desire to have multiple screens with all sorts of different things flashing about might reduce a bit.”
Elworthy noted the impact that an added focus on sustainability would have on events in the future, predicting that this would be another change the coronavirus lockdown would bring.
He said: “Something that’s really struck me over the course of the last couple of months, is something that I really noticed on the back of 2017, when we ran the Champions Trophy and the Women’s World Cup, and then in 2019, the Cricket World Cup. I noticed a marked significant scrutiny around sustainability and that was from 17-19. We’ve all seen those pictures of what cities look like now before COVID and after COVID, and how clean the environment actually looks and when you go for a run in the morning how different it feels. What’s going to come out of the back of this is probably a far greater scrutiny on event organisers and their sustainability policies, and that’s fantastic for everybody - for the sports, for the spectators, for the participants. But the way we actually conduct our business and the events we put on, there will be a far greater focus and a far greater lens on that particular element of event delivery in the future.”