While the pandemic-induced shutdown of live sports wasn’t what professional teams expected for 2020, the innovations that came out of this year have created an entirely new playbook for fan engagement.
For the San Francisco 49ers, the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia 76ers, each team had a different set of complicating circumstances to deal with when Covid-19 halted their seasons this spring. Speaking on the virtual stage at Adweek’s Brandweek Sports Marketing Summit today, executives from each of the teams discussed how they’ve supported and engaged fans in a year that’s proven anything but predictable for sports.
For the Devils, an NHL team that has yet to return to the ice, the shutdown came mid-season. The team chose to finish out the season with simulated games, covering them just as they would real games—with pre-game and post-game coverage in addition to live-tweeting and game-calling.
“We had a lot of fun with it, and we brought our partners along for the ride,” said Jillian Frechette, svp of marketing for the New Jersey Devils. “We really drove fan engagement at a moment where our fans were feeling—like the rest of the world—that they were a little bit out of place as to what to expect in the initial stages of this global pandemic.”
The Philadelphia 76ers faced a different set of challenges throughout the spring and summer. First, the NBA team worked with the city’s other professional sports teams, including the Eagles, Phillies and Flyers, to create a PSA-style campaign promoting community and lifting residents’ spirits in the early days of the pandemic.
“We wanted to show the city of Philadelphia that we were united and that we had their backs, and that if we were going to get through this pandemic, we had to unite and we had to do it together,” said 76ers svp of marketing Brittanie Boyd. “It showcased and highlighted local fans—ordinary people doing extraordinary things around the Philadelphia market and communities.”
After that, the 76ers had to quickly shift gears and prepare to head to the bubble in Orlando. While the team was there, Boyd said she worked to give fans at home different ways to feel part of that bubble, whether that was through accessing players’ daily blogs or catching T-shirts launched from a double decker bus in downtown Philadelphia.
With the NFL season underway, the San Francisco 49ers have had a partial return to normalcy. But without fans in the stadium, the team has had to find new ways to reach and engage them at home, similarly to both the 76ers and Devils.
Alex Chang, chief marketing officer for the 49ers, said the team has been working to build up more behind-the-scenes content, allowing fans to virtually enter the locker room, practices and other player experiences that are generally hidden from view.
“We’ve developed new digital assets, as well as such as a live pregame show which involves fans,” Chang said, noting that a lot of the new innovations are things the team could’ve been doing prepandemic. “The reality is, in a normal season, we have 70,000-plus fans in Levi’s Stadium, but we’ve got tens of millions of fans who will never set foot in Levi’s Stadium, and it’s our job to engage everyone.”