Maintaining relevance is essential for postponed and cancelled tournaments – here’s how to do it.

By Alastair Lyon, Senior Account Executive.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic locked its talons into the sports industry, those involved in showcasing tournaments have been confronted by an array of sobering questions. One of the most under-discussed of these is how the many competitions that face their first ever ‘fallow year’, can remain relevant without any live action to satisfy fans with?

Many of the organisers, brands and broadcasters to whom this article applies are struggling to deal with the very real financial consequences of this year’s cancellation or postponement – and making torturous decisions as a result. However, without maintaining ‘relevance’ through to next season, such difficult decisions will become the norm, rather than a pandemic-borne anomaly.

Put candidly: Less relevance now, means lower turnstile numbers and viewing figures next year, means smaller rights-packages the year after, means much lower revenues to invest, means less relevance next year… ad nauseam.

These are undoubtedly troubling, complicated times. The context in which organisers and sponsors are trying to activate is simultaneously nuanced and changing. However, consumers’ lived experience is remarkably similar; all of us are – for the most part – gradually acclimatising to our ‘new normal’ having done little other than stay at (and work from) home for months. This sets the stage for cancelled tournaments to resonate on a genuinely emotional level and maintain relevance until the show can go on.

While the need for relevance is clear – how to do it in this uniquely tricky context, is not. Difficulty notwithstanding, we have identified four different areas to consider:


  1. Drive Nostalgia – Remind people what they’re missing

Organisers and rightsholders can harbour every hope that fans value the experience curated for them off the field just as much as much as the spectacle displayed on it. However, every sports stakeholder begrudgingly knows that it is almost always the sport itself that gets people tuning in and through the turnstiles.

Combine this irrefutable fact with one of sport’s many quirks: that fans adore re-living iconic, historic moments – and the argument to ameliorate fans’ situation by drip-feeding them iconic sport makes itself.

Whether you incorporate moments of particular renown into a new, awareness-raising ATL campaign, or simply release famous old matches to whet your followers’ appetites, one would be foolish not to exploit a tournament’s often-rich history that you – as a rightsholder – have at your fingertips.


  1. Think outside the box – draw inspiration from other sectors

That COVID-19 and all its ramifications must prompt sports marketers to prioritise genuinely creative solutions should really be taken as read.

Rightsholders and organisers will certainly not be alone in their attempts to capture people’s imagination – and some of their competitors will have the all-but insurmountable advantage of having actual live sport to market. There is, though, a silver-lining. A lack of live sport allows one to draw inspiration from sectors which, in any other situation, would feel irrelevant and contrived.

The travel industry (one of the few sectors to have been worse-hit by COVID-19 than sport) for example has demonstrated a tremendous ability stay on people’s minds (and bucket-lists). Many of these successes have been born through sheer nimbleness or original use of technology. Such solutions present a treasure trove of virtual tours, immersive experiences and expert analysis to sports marketers, if only they were bold enough to liberate themselves from the shackles of what’s tried and tested.


  1. Ensure good comes from this: hone-in on purpose

The novel coronavirus outbreak brings with it few advantages. What the current situation does allow sports stakeholders to do, though, is execute external communications with a more genuinely strategic mindset, without any chance of your aims being muddied or compromised by uncontrollable on-field events.

The need for such a strategy to be rooted in purpose will have been evident to decision makers for a while. But for those to whom it wasn’t obvious, recent months have demonstrated emphatically that the sporting institutions who have made the biggest impact, and accrued the most reputational capital, have been those who chose to stick their heads above the parapet and demanded or effected change. What’s more, with a lack of actual fixtures to fill the back-pages, the opportunities to communicate this new purpose through earned are riper than ever.


  1. Opportunities to land proactive earned media are rife. Capitalise on them:

There exists an interesting trichotomy of sports media at the moment – there is little action to write about and ad spend has been slashed; all the while readership is higher than it’s been in years. What this means for cancelled tournaments is that the opportunity to get exposure through earned channels is particularly real. But with little action to speak of, how one develops a story that attracts general interest beyond the four walls of your organisation is not easy.

The answer here lies in access, fleet of foot and genuine insight. Demonstrate the bold measures that you are taking to get your sport back up and running, give journalists unprecedented and unfettered access to your key decision makers and paint a story that is unique to your situation, but which drives universal empathy and interest.


Should you wish to read more thoughts from FH UK’s Sport & Entertainment team, then head to practice lead Nick Palmer-Brown’s thoughts on how brands can execute successful campaigns in the midst of Covid-19.