Sports Gazette

by sports journalism students at St Mary's University, London

View from around the globe: How clubs are prioritising fan engagement during Covid-19 lockdowns

Posted on 14 June 2020 by Pranav Shahaney
(Photo Credit: Bundesliga Twitter)

After weeks without any live action, sport in Germany returned in the form of the Bundesliga on the 16th of May, and more recently in Spain. These unprecedented times have forced clubs and sporting organisations all around the world to improvise and carve out the best possible solution to resume sporting action and complete the respective domestic and continental competitions.

Since the return of the German first and second divisions, there’s not been a huge spike, or a second wave, proving that with adequate safety measures, the Premier League, along with other leagues around the world could return without too many added complications. The Premier League and the Serie A have announced their plans to return on 17th and 20th of June respectively, but things in other continents aren’t as straightforward.

In India, March to May is typically viewed as the Indian Premier League (IPL) season where the top players from all over the world come to play T-20 cricket of the highest order. Being auctioned for astronomical fees, the majority of players earn more through their IPL contracts than what their national cricket associations can offer them.

With cases in the country on a rampant rise, it’s unlikely the tournament will be given the go-ahead to resume until September at least – especially given how excessive the rains are in certain parts of the subcontinent. However, it’s not stopped the franchises from doing what they do best, entertaining their fans. While it’s not the edge of your seat blockbusters that live cricket offers, a number of clubs have turned to social media platforms to create awareness first and foremost, but also to find new ways to interact with millions of their fans stuck in their houses without any sport on offer.

Last week, Sports Gazette heard from voices in the Delhi Capitals and Rajasthan Royals hierarchies. Dheeraj Malhotra, CEO of the Capitals, has been a pioneer for fan engagement from the outset, even before the coronavirus crisis struck. This lockdown has only given him and the club a chance to back up their credentials, and it’s fair to say they’re doing the best they can.

One challenge that’s eluded the Capitals hierarchy is that a number of their players over the past few seasons have not been from Delhi. The fans often felt that they lacked a connection with the players, and weren’t able to offer the unequivocal support that some superstars receive playing in front of their home fans.

“We believe fans are our biggest asset. Even though the majority of our players aren’t from Delhi, it gives someone else a chance, someone with a special story or memory attached to the capital to build a camaraderie with the fans. The internet has been a huge blessing,” said Malhotra.

Social media now plays a huge role in building brands of IPL franchises, and Delhi have invested a lot of time and money to maximise their buzz. Their chairman and co-owner Parth Jindal is actively involved as well, and often engages in Skype or Zoom calls with fans to discuss team strategies, auctions, and is open to suggestions and criticisms that are offered.

A number of players and coaches are also involved in charity work for the underprivileged by going on food drives and handing out memorabilia like signed bats and jerseys from past and current players. Malhotra also claims that a number of fans are invited for fitness and training sessions, and that’s something that’s been taking place for the past few years.

Discussing fan engagement and business strategies, Jake Lush McCrum, COO of the inaugural IPL champions Rajasthan Royals, stated that they’re “fluid and flexible.” In his opinion, keeping the players fit even if the season might take place in the winter is the club’s utmost priority along with fan satisfaction.

“During times like these, I can only empathise with all our fans. I’m equally missing live cricket, but what we’re trying to do is bring them some unseen footage. We’re including training footage, repurposing highlights from the past, and now we’ve also started sports marketing education courses to keep fans and players stimulated,” said the Royals COO.

Keeping fans stimulated is a priority regardless of the sport, and it’s something German side Borussia Dortmund have prioritised. They’re known to have one of the most passionate home crowds in Europe including the famed ‘Yellow Wall’, but with no fans allowed inside the stadiums, they’ve pivoted to other platforms to keep them intrigued.

Benedikt Scholz, Borussia Dortmund’s head of international and new business, discussed the club’s social media strategy with Sports Gazette. Bundesliga sides are known to have a good Twitter game – which wins laurels from fans of other clubs as well. Explaining how Dortmund make this possible and are using it to their advantage in the current circumstances, Scholz said:

“Our aim is reaching as many people as we can and retain them for a longer time on our platforms consuming our content. For this reason, we prioritise online content and have invested in our own staff and team. We have a studio at the stadium, training ground, and at our administrative headquarters.

“We have 20 people that are extremely close to the players. Wherever the players go, the team is constantly following them to create interesting content. We also enjoy bantering with other clubs on Twitter and that’s all thanks to this team of very talented people.”

For Paul Rogers, who serves as Chief Strategy Officer at Serie A side AS Roma, the crisis hasn’t had an impact on their fan strategy. What’s changed is that the club has, in a way, become a public service as they often relay government guidelines on social distancing, closures, and on reopening certain industries.

“In terms of our social media guidelines, not a lot has changed. What has changed is that now we play a public service announcement role. Our fans won’t listen to the government but will to what our coach and players say. We also create informational content about the global spread, things that could be done to curtail it, and the overarching effects in the short term.

“Apart from this, we’re doing the best we can to deal with boredom people have. We’re coming up with content to engage kids. Our players are making music playlists and sharing them on social media. They’re also talking about Tiger King and other films that could be watched online before the season restarts.”

While football in Europe is set to dominate TV screens for the next few months, domestic cricket in India, and possibly around the world is no closer to narrowing in on a restart date. However, what clubs have tried to, and succeeded in doing, is bringing a smile to people’s face amid these challenging times.