New fan engagement emerges while stadiums around the world remain mostly empty

14 OCTOBER 2020

Ania Sponaski 

Sports are part of our daily lives. Our culture. Our identity. For many fans, each year can revolve around their team’s season and the major milestones that serve as a consistent backdrop to our experiences and memories. 


So when sports came to a standstill, fans rightfully felt lost. The idea of no sport to fill our weekends or plan our summers around was unheard of until now. But where there’s chaos and uncertainty, there’s the potential for innovation. 


Naturally, attention turned towards reliving the thrill of the game in its online format. With players initially finding themselves in the same lockdown situation, they were ready to engage in some gaming action. In April, footballers took part in the Premier League Esports Invitational, racking up 150 million views with viewership increasing 275% from the opening round to the finals. By June, the F1 Esports – Virtual Grand Prix series achieved their own record-breaking audience with 30 million views across tv and digital platforms. The series enabled fans to continue watching virtual races – but more so check out their favourite drivers as they battled it out alongside a variety of personalities. Before the live Tour de France took place in recent weeks, the first Virtual Tour de France was held via Zwift, the growing indoor cycling platform. For the first time ever, men’s and women’s teams were able to compete against each other. 


What did we learn? Fans are eager to watch the stars they cheer for on the pitch or the race track translate their competitiveness to the virtual world. And the athletes maintain their desire to win at all cost, despite the less familiar environment, and entertain with their spirited banter. 


Beyond a steady opportunity to watch and engage with stars via esports competitions, fans have been able to experience other virtual events brought to life as an alternative to cancelled summer tours. Chinese fans of Bundesliga club, Borussia Dortmund, weren’t going to let a pandemic get in the way of their summer plans and inspired the BVB Virtual Asia Tour. Consisting of online sessions between players and fans, live streams and training sessions, fans followed the club’s pre-season in real-time. The first Chinese fan party night hosted 3.7 million fans; the next one, 5 million. With such demand, the club has acquired new knowledge of their global fanbase enabling the introduction of even more new engagement formats from a podcast to a virtual stadium tour which can connect fans to the team year-round. 

But where there’s chaos and uncertainty, there’s the potential for innovation.

Rival club, FC Bayern Munich produced their own virtual tour in partnership with Audi, staging the Audi Digital Summer Tour. For nine days, the team catered to its fanbase in China and the US even conducting digital autograph sessions leveraging the Audi Robograph to transfer player signatures from Munich to China. From virtual fan challenges to exclusive content, fans had plenty of reasons to keep returning to the global platform. 


These digital pilot programs have proven fans have a strong appetite to be in contact with their favourite teams – and distance isn’t an issue. By offering new experiences, new content, new perspectives and overall more interaction, teams have rewarded their fans and opened up new forums for engagement from anywhere in the world. Similarly, the crossover between mainstream sports and esports has the potential to expand yearly content beyond the season offering new revenue streams. Even injured players can find a way to stay engaged with their fanbase and keep the spirit of competition alive. Fan passion has influenced a new window of innovation with rights holders that will continue to develop as COVID-19 resurges in many countries making it difficult for a return to full stadia. Teams and sports leagues need to ensure they maintain high interest and relevancy with their fanbase to ensure a full return to normalcy when the time comes. 

Fan passion has influenced a new window of innovation with rights holders that will continue to develop as COVID-19 resurges.