OPINION: If There Was Ever a Time, It Is Now…

21 May 2020

Cricket South Africa’s Sponsor Services Manager, Mnqobi Zondi, suggests that now is the time for innovation, with the COVID-19 pandemic turning the world of sport on its head.

Human beings are nostalgic by nature.

Think of the time you held on to your old high school sports equipment, because it was your first acquisition and carried memories of your junior feats. Or the time scrapbooks were a thing and you gazed over and over at yours, because it had pictures and autographs of your favourite sports personalities.

Sometimes nostalgia is not a deliberate act, but is rather by design. How many times have you listened to a song and it triggered memories of where you were or what you were getting up to at the time? Lately, I have been watching old sport on TV simply because I was present on the day or I was working on the event.

These past experiences still come at us either in a negative or positive form, but they certainly help us reflect on how far we have come in our growth or careers. Most importantly, they help us conceive some sort of plan for our future. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has forced us to ponder a little more on the latter. Who knew or would have predicted that a disease not even widely known a few months ago would transform human behaviour so significantly?

In the sporting world, a big chunk of commercial value for sponsors is derived from player activations or physical appearances. These all vary, with everything from signing sessions to campaign commercials, appearances at events and CSI initiatives. These have all been widely affected and a sudden change of tactics has been forcefully activated, with human interaction diminished as a result of the virus pulling the proverbial plug.

Don’t get me wrong, nothing could ever replace the magic of human interaction - there is something about it that affirms partnerships and builds brand affinity, and it can’t be replaced. The interesting positive spin that this virus has brought upon us has been to alter our thought patterns in approaching interactions in the future.

My interest has been in how past and present athletes – particularly the current active crop - have embraced the concept of podcasting and blogging. Podcasting and internet radio have had a very slow take-off here in South Africa, due – according to some experts – to the lack of access to or price of data, but generally it has also been felt that the medium has not really captured interesting content as seen in some countries.

The space has been mostly occupied by artists in the entertainment business or former athletes with a ‘little bit more time on their hands’. But, players like young All Black flanker Ardie Savea have taken to the concept like a duck to water. We have also seen the likes of Proteas fast bowler Kagiso Rabada, Springbok captain Siya Kolisi and NBA star LeBron James taking to Instagram Live and sharing workouts, with fellow athletes and their fans almost enjoying a front row seat. The content is relevant and discusses topics that resonate with fans, not only because they are current, but because it is what they are experiencing as an active athlete.

This leads me to the opportunities that open up for sponsors. There are definitely opportunities where certain segments can be dedicated to rights-holders, although this is not to be confused with sponsoring the platform. The message can be driven through the players by engaging with other athletes, with the fans being the captive audience and, essentially, the sponsor’s target market. The exciting reality is that most athletes love to share their feats and achievements, and it always makes for great content and discussion when a fellow team-mate or fans are involved.

The biggest challenge posed to all of us in this period is that ordinarily sponsors each year would launch and leverage off different campaigns. These would have a different look and feel based on their strategic aligned objectives, geared towards one commercially-invested property. COVID-19 has channeled all the attention into the cause to control and fight the virus. What this has created is an abundance of clutter of the same or similar messages. Whilst this united front serves the greater purpose, it does however exhaust the property and leaves little room to continuously keep the audience engaged.

Science tells us COVID-19 will be around for the longest time. The biggest questions then are: will innovation in sport become a norm and not influenced by disasters? And, are sponsors and rights holders willing to transfer human interaction to a wider digital interaction?

Only time will tell.