Before the pandemic hit and changed the landscape of the sports industry, concern had already begun to grow within traditional sports that the viewing demographic was ageing unsustainably – the next generation of fans, and therefore consumers, was not engaging with live sports on the scale of their predecessors. The dramatic rise in esports engagement since the lockdown was imposed has confirmed and fuelled those concerns, with younger demographics driving that spike in popularity.

A number of different strategies have come to the fore as sports’ organisations seek to engage the younger viewer. Cross-platform engagement with esports was a common theme while traditional sport was on hiatus, with locked-down athletes being encouraged to compete with one another on esports platforms to maintain – and even increase – engagement with fans. The Premier League, NBA, and Formula One all held competitions on their respective esports platforms, with Formula One pitting their professional drivers against other sports stars and celebrity fans. These contests have had success and certainly driven interest which might have otherwise ebbed away during lockdown, but many organisations are now looking to learn lessons in longer term engagement from esports.

The Personal Touch

The New York Yankees’ new partnership with TikTok is indicative of traditional sports’ realisation that there are elements of esports’ success with younger viewers which are replicable, at least partially, in their own games. Key amongst these is direct fan engagement – something which is a natural and constant component of the esports world. Many of esports’ biggest stars grew their profiles by producing highly personal videos and providing running commentary as they play. Platforms like Twitch and YouTube invite questions and comments both from and between fans, fostering a sense of community amongst those interested and bringing the viewer closer to the competitor. Esports players are often very open to discussing the strategy behind their success, while the live-stream format provides a level of access to competitors’ real-time reactions and thought processes which is unparalleled in traditional sport.

Many sports are already trying to replicate this as best they can. Golf, historically a slow-changing and traditionalist game, has introduced the idea of personal microphones worn by featured players as they play, giving the viewer a closer insight into both the strategic discussions held with caddies and the emotional highs and lows of top-level sport. It has met with resistance from some players, but fan reaction to these insights – even where picked up by standard on-course mics in the absence of crowd noise – has been positive enough to suggest the idea should, and will, be persevered with. Both cricket and basketball have long used selected clips or scheduled on-field interviews to bring viewers closer to the action, but these methods don’t capture the performers during the key moments of a match, and seldom do the subjects reveal significant tactical insight or betray raw emotion. Where this has been achieved – as in Amazon’s burgeoning series of fly-on-the-wall football documentaries – the reaction has been overwhelmingly positive.

The partnership between the Yankees and TikTok recognises that it is not only the game which younger viewers wish to be brought closer to – it is the players themselves. Esports stars are known not only as competitors, but as personalities, which enhances viewer engagement with their activities, both in-game and otherwise. Traditional sports are seeking to embrace that, with players becoming more accessible to fans and being encouraged to use new media to express their personality. Platforms like TikTok also fit the short-form, on demand and digital platform criteria which are generally identified as the preference of younger generations. By utilising such mediums to provide more direct fan interaction, traditional sports can seek to build the relationship between athletes and consumers and reverse the usual engagement model - using engagement with the players to drive subsequent engagement in the sport.

The Challenges Ahead

These new models are not, however, without their challenges. Included amongst them are the potential impact which successful sports sector integration with platforms such as TikTok may have on broadcast rights agreements. A move toward short, on-demand digital media could further increase the value of isolated highlights – a long range goal or spectacular rally – which are already the subject of significant levels of piracy and enforcement action. Any use of such clips from match action would have to fit into existing broadcast deals, and it will be a hard sell to convince broadcasters to relinquish control of the most valuable elements of their rights package. Alternatives such as behind-the-scenes content, showing players around the training ground and pre/post-match, have proven popular with fans in documentary format, and would be an attractive alternative for teams looking to offer supporters closer access to the inner workings of the team. However, in the context of the brewing battle over control of player data, teams should be wary of agreeing proper consents in their employment contracts before opening their digital doors to the world.

Beyond the training ground, esports have shown that direct fan engagement is about more than insight into the sport – it is about the viewer connecting with the individuals involved in a way that feels personal. Traditional sports teams have an opportunity to capture greater interest in the younger market by capitalising on the online presence of their most engaging personalities, but here, too, challenges lie ahead. There are potential conflicts between the interests of sporting organisations – teams, governing bodies and the like – and individual athletes. As the industry seeks to capitalise on player engagement at an organisational level, so too are players becoming savvier about protecting their own personal brand. Many players across myriad sports are now filing trademarks in an effort to bolster and protect their own image and marketability. Direct player interaction through digital media is a key opportunity for players to build their profile and provide exposure for their own personal sponsors or brands. Organisations will therefore have to carefully consider how they can build on athlete engagement themselves, and may need to contractually agree positions with their players. As the value of this type of marketing grows, sponsors will seek exposure through such platforms, and direct sponsorship of popular players will be the natural course, unless teams are able to agree promotional clauses with their players, stipulating that they afford certain levels of publicity to the team’s sponsors.

As a final consideration, bringing viewers closer to the action may also necessitate regulatory changes which may be unwelcome in some circles. Regular watchers of live sport will be familiar with the habitual commentator apology when strong language is picked up on the broadcast microphones. This is generally written off as an unfortunate and unavoidable accident, but as sports broadcasts begin to intentionally capture players’ in-game comments and reactions, consideration will have to be given to the responsibility of the broadcaster – and potentially even the players - for avoiding such incidents. The same might be said for the reflective impact of players’ personal lives and opinions on their affiliated organisations, which will inevitably become more pronounced as the line between the athletes and the team, league or wider sport is consciously blurred. Regulation in this area would no doubt be strongly opposed by athletes, and would run counter to the purpose of bringing consumers closer to the real person on the pitch, but stakeholders will have no choice but to consider their broadcasting responsibilities and the protection of their own brands. Very careful deliberation is required to find the right path forward for traditional sports and direct fan engagement, but if used and managed well, it could be a pivotal tool in sustaining traditional sports’ popularity amongst future generations.