Looking back over the past year or so, we are reminded of the innate ability of sport to manufacture moments of brilliance. Since the start of last year alone, the world has collectively held its breath as Tiger Woods drained a putt to complete the ultimate comeback and win the 2019 Masters. A few short months later, Ben Stokes was the architect of two of the greatest afternoons in cricket’s storied history. On Arthur Ashe Stadium Center Court, Naomi Osaka and Coco Gauff won the hearts of tennis fans around the world. In Paris, Megan Rapinoe inspired a nation and a stirred a movement.

Although exceptional, moments like these are by no means new. If anything, moments like these compound year on year as reminders of the power of sport. For the brands who will collectively spend more than £37 billion on sponsorship this year, it is a reminder of why associating with such a strong passion point can deliver marketing and business objectives.

However, whilst on the surface sport was uniting and inspiring fans as it always has, boardrooms were facing extraordinary challenges.

In 2019, a tweet by a Houston Rockets executive would cost the NBA an estimated $200m, exposing the potential fragility of lucrative global deals. A US women’s soccer pay dispute would sour their World Cup heroics from the previous year, highlighting the gender gap that still exists at the highest level of sport. Star basketball prospect Zion Williamson would bust through his shoe causing injury, igniting a debate on the imbalance of power in ‘amateur’ sports and in the process wiping $1.1billion off Nike’s stock value. NFL sponsor Nike would stand behind besieged quarterback Colin Kaepernick, fracturing a long-term relationship and sparking a conversation on social justice.  

The machine that is sport was suddenly vulnerable regardless of the continual world-capturing moments of brilliance, passion and success. Sport as we knew it was being asked questions it had never needed to answer and was beginning to feel the growing pains of exponential commercial growth. Cracks were forming. Cracks that would become chasms with the outbreak of the coronavirus.   

In as early as mid-January this year, competitions, leagues and events were postponing, pivoting, and cancelling as the scale of the outbreak grew. What started with avoiding pre-match handshakes would culminate in the postponement of the Olympic Games for a reason other than war for the first time in history.

In the face of such challenges, the immediate COVID-19 reactions have seen stakeholders involved with sport react with not just shock, but also with resolve and resilience. The reward for such innovative responses from volunteers, fans, players, CEOs and players has been great. 

A first ever virtual F1 Grand Prix drew 3.2 million online viewers, with an estimated 1.2 million watching on TV. Spanish football giants Real Madrid saw a huge spike in social media activity due to a coronavirus digital strategy that focusses repackaging old footage to whet the appetite of fans. Microsoft signed a lucrative multi-year deal with the NBA to create a direct-to-consumer digital platform.  

Meanwhile, organizations catering to the sustained appetite for sport content from fans are being rewarded. A first ever virtual NFL draft drew a record-setting number of viewers, while The Last Dance Michael Jordan docuseries premiered as ESPN’s most-watched documentary ever averaging 6.1 million viewers for the first two episodes on the network’s flagship channel.

Traditional sports broadcast is benefitting also, with the Bundesliga restarting their season behind closed doors to record viewership, drawing thirty-four times the average UK audience on its opening weekend. In Florida, a socially distanced charity golf game between four stars would feature commentary from the President of the United States, and raise $5.5 million for charity. A week later, a game featuring Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, paired with NFL legends would become the most-watched golf telecast in the history of cable television. All examples prove that safely reimagining how events are broadcasted can draw the attention of fans and commercial partners alike. The success of these tournaments and events has contributed to greater confidence elsewhere, providing a blueprint to leagues including the Premier League in the UK to restart their own seasons.

Organizations and sports marketers need to conceptualize the next normal and consider how to continue enhancing fan engagement through their platform. These revised approaches and tools will ensure preparation for the period that follows lockdown and help kick-off a turn around.

Like Tiger Woods, like Ben Stokes, like Naomi Osaka, Zion Williamson, and Colin Kaepernick, sports stakeholders are required to innovate, push boundaries and rewrite the rule book. We are already seeing evidence of the reward for such practices, both on the court and in the boardroom.

The outlook therefore remains positive. The challenges will not disappear, but the decisions made to remedy the current challenges will strengthen an industry that promises to emerge stronger.