Opinion: Why 2021 Consumer Behaviour Presents an Opportunity for Sport

Two Circles CEO Gareth Balch explains why 2021 will present a once-in-a-generation opportunity to grow the world’s engagement with sport – making it more important than ever to be a sports marketer.

One of the many, many reasons 2020 will go down in history is because societal behaviour changed more in nine months of the year than in any period since World War Two.

It was the year holidays to far-flung corners of the earth became local walks. The year commuting became a shuffle to the spare room. That screens replaced socials. And the year we went online to buy everything from batteries to broccoli.

For sport, lots has been written about properties being brought to the financial brink in 2020, and how consumption changed dramatically as a result of restricted movement.

That it was the year, confined to our homes and seeking out unique entertainment, we watched numerous live sports events in record-breaking numbers on TV. That we turned to D2C platforms – some of which launched in 2020 – to get our fix of on-demand sports content. And that we forged new direct relationship with the teams, tournaments and athletes we love – primarily by signing up to digital products we hadn’t previously – in record numbers.

Though it is important to understand these behaviours, going forward reflecting on them is largely inconsequential. More important is accurately predicting the impact Covid will have on societal behaviour as ‘normality’ returns at some stage in 2021.

And having analysed all the data at our disposal, we believe societal behaviour will lend itself to sport playing an even bigger role in our lives than it ever has in 2021.

The restriction of movement in 2020 has suppressed hardwired, ingrained human desires around collective social experiences, and as a result, we will want to go out more than we did before Covid. Humans are social animals and naturally seek the companionship of others as part of wellbeing – and 2020 has created a pent-up demand.

We’re already starting to see this through purchase behaviour – bookings for bucket list trips in 2021 and 2022, for example, soared in December according to Advantage, the UK’s largest independent travel agent group. This included an initial 62% jump in week-on-week sales following the announcement vaccines were to be rolled out. We’ve also seen early signs of this in sport with major ticket sales campaigns for properties such as the Lions, which saw ticket applications for its 2021 tour to South Africa set a new record following a ballot in September.

Sport is one of – if not the – biggest leisure pursuits in the world, due to our cognitive bias for unscripted human drama and the unique collective physical experiences it provides. Covid will throw out a lot more ‘floating voters’ into the experience market – all of whom are all slightly predisposed to change habits and more open to trying new things than ever. This presents a huge opportunity for sport when it is safe, and fans are permitted back in large numbers.

Covid has also caused us to readdress the things that are most important to us, brought about by previously unimaginable scenarios such as not being able to see friends or attend the funerals of loved ones. And as something that brings profound positive physical and mental health benefits, large proportions of the world have experienced first-hand the negative impact of not being able to attend or play sport. This absence is making the heart grow fonder – as the LTA experienced in the second half of 2020 with rising numbers of people playing tennis – and going into 2021, sport will have a more cherished place in our nations’ and societies’ hearts.

All this means that in 2021 the propensity of the average person to consume sport – either by attending, following or playing – will be increased.

Those properties – like the Lions and the LTA – who get out the blocks quickest and market brilliantly to their fans about why their sport is the one to come back to attend, follow or play will be the ones who will grab greater market share. Long-term this will be hugely beneficial, as the new baseline that is set in terms of interest, attendance and engagement in the first full season post-Covid will become the new baseline to build from.

But for those sports whose events sit in a congested calendar – or don’t market very well and are drowned out by more active sports properties targeting their existing or potential fans in the first week of that season – are at risk of losing market share. Though they won’t see their total addressable fanbase fall, they will see their challenge in the battle for attention from all leisure providers, not just sport, get just that bit bigger.

With light at the end of the tunnel and vaccines rolling out globally, uncertainty has started to turn into optimism and there is an opportunity for sport to return to a growth trajectory on the horizon. Decisions made in Q1 could therefore see the start of a glorious long-term relationship with growing and highly engaged fanbase.

And that means it’s never been a more important time to be a sports marketer.

Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers

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