Euro 2020, Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix, the Olympics in Tokyo - despite the on-going threat and struggle with Covid-19, sport is back in abundance and live audiences are re-emerging from lockdowns to slowly fill the seats of once empty stadia. But something has changed. The pandemic has accelerated shifting media habits and exposed some fundamental challenges in how sports organisations and rights holders engage with their fan base.

To top it all, Covid-19 pulled the economic rug from under the sports industry, as it did with so many industries and the lifeblood – advertising and TV revenue – was suddenly cut short. It has taken time to re-think, re-analyse and understand how sports consumerism has changed and given that sport and physical activity contribute £39 billion to the UK’s economy, according to Sport England, we need the recovery to be strong and swift.

But as a report by European Commission’s Directorate General for Education, Youth, Sport and Culture (and carried out by Ecorys and sport economics non-profit SportEconAustria) estimates, the UK will experience the second largest fall in sport income out of all the 28 countries covered. A drop of 9.5 billion Euros (£8.6 bn), nearly 17 percent of the total decline across Europe, is expected. Given it will take time for events to be full of supporters again, it demands a shift in thinking.

Clearly, all sports organisations and rights holders have been focussed on short-term needs, to cover costs, to keep the lights on but there is an increasing need for longer term vision, to embrace change and recognise new opportunities. That demands business agility and visibility. To really understand how the market is changing and how fans are consuming sport and want to engage with clubs and sports stars, sports organisations need to own and analyse the data.

Without the ability to analyse unified data from across the player, fan, retail, media and event environments, how can sports rights holders know what they own and are selling? How can they ever be in a position of strength when it comes to renegotiating rights with media outlets, for example?

During the pandemic, this has come to a head, as we have seen traditional relationships with fans fall away and the rise of digital and media-driven content. Sports teams and rights holders have lost the centre ground and key relationships with fans. In short, so many sports organisations are at the wrong end of the value chain.

This loss of connection can be devastating for the future of sports, so how do teams reconnect? How can they start to try and understand new trends, such as the digitally-driven ‘generation Z’? How can they build a strong proposition based on intelligence so that supporters, partners and sponsors dovetail into a meaningful and relevant product?

It’s about becoming broad service organisations that efficiently manage and monetise opportunities around branding and access. Personalisation through data-insight is essential in the battle to optimise both physical and digital experiences, for new and existing audiences. Sports organisations need agility to achieve this, to put fans and customers at the centre of the future strategy, so that they can respond to changes but also predict and pre-empt change.

This agility can only be achieved through cultural and organisational transformation. It takes a different mindset and outlook to realise how change can also lead to opportunity. As Deloitte suggests, organisations need to identify and invest in innovations that unlock long-term digital engagement and reinvent the fan experience. They also have to find ways to make sports content compelling, for all audiences, regardless of location, and that will demand an element of personalisation.

To regain control, rights holders need to pivot, to embrace this opportunity to change but do so with caution and not at the expense of authenticity. Fans tend to be loyal but they should not be taken for granted. By enabling data to flow from fans, partners, media and so on, sports organisations can increase their agility and provide informed engagement that is not only relevant to supporters but also seductive to business partners. That’s a long game worth playing.


Do you agree? How to you see the role of data in the future of sports? Look out for our second blog in the series, Have rights owners learned from the mistakes of the failed ESL?