Leaving Lockdown: How sports leaders are planning to meet pent up demand for live stadia events

June 09, 2020

While the country’s frontline NHS staff and key workers remain centre stage during the coronavirus pandemic, supporting them, and the more vulnerable in our communities, is a quiet army led by some of the UK’s biggest sports institutions.

Much like when they are out on the pitch, on the court or on the track, what they have achieved is pretty impressive.

Three of Britain’s greatest sporting exports this week revealed how the cancellation and postponement of three of the world’s biggest global events has allowed them to leverage their values to support their athletes and staff, fans, local communities and critical workers during COVID-19.

In an exclusive live webinar presented by Ocean Outdoor, sports leaders Andy Anson, Chief Executive of the British Olympic Association and Team GB; Mick Desmond, Commercial and Media Director of The All England Lawn Tennis Club; and Vinai Venkatesham, Managing Director of Arsenal Football Club, discussed how they managed uncertainty once they realised the impact Covid-19 would have on their events.

Maintaining a Strong Presence

Webinar host Ocean Outdoor CEO Tim Bleakley set the scene, saying: “For a business that has effectively had its audience switched off by Covid-19, one of the things that has been quite profound is just how much things that happen outside of our homes are so synonymous with our industry. The great outdoor sporting events are definitely synonymous with the audiences we have out of home, so it is really interesting for advertisers, agencies and brands to hear how things might have changed.

“In addition, Ocean has had a philosophy during Covid-19 of making sure that our screens are a force for good and by that we are ensuring that we are delivering all sorts of content be it community messages, support for the NHS, charitable foundations. Maintaining a strong presence regardless of what we are being hit with by this situation has been really important. The BOA and Team GB, The AELTC and Arsenal have been at the epicentre of this movement too.”

The Only Thing That Is Certain is Uncertainty

Fans, people, players and athletes are integral to the collaborative programmes now underway at the BOA, Wimbledon and Arsenal FC to ensure a safe, staged and responsibly managed return to fixtures and events in which spectators form a crucial part of the brand experience.

It’s an approach based on communication, transparency and how you make people feel.

Andy Anson was in Japan planning for Tokyo 2020 the week before UK lockdown happened. Everyone was in that hyper, geared up mental zone ready for the Games. Two weeks later the summer Olympics were postponed.

“To have that taken away from you is something of a downer. But what was impressive was how the organisations and the individuals within the organisation started working really effectively across digital platforms to protect the British Olympic Association and plan for next year. For five or six weeks it was quite exciting in a bizarre way,” said Anson.

This has been an unbelievably uncertain time. I don’t think any of us were around in the 1920s when Spanish flu was around so this is new for all of us.

“What we have tried to do through the process is to be great communicators. So we have a staff call every Monday. We have 500 people joining that. We have newsletters that go out every day. And what we are trying to do is basically accept that the only certainty we have at the moment is uncertainty.

“So our approach is to be as transparent as we possibly can be with our people and take them through the journey with us whether that is players, coaching staff, or other staff in the organisation. One of the positives, if that’s a word we can take from this horrible pandemic, is that I don’t think our organisation at Arsenal has ever felt so connected and has ever felt as together as it is now.

“So when we get out of this, when we get to the other side, one of the focuses for me is how we keep that great sense of togetherness and how we keep that great sense of connection that we have somehow fostered despite the fact we are not physically together at the moment.”

Vinai Venkatesham, Managing Director of Arsenal Football Club

A summer without Wimbledon isn’t really summer. It’s the first time The Championships have been cancelled since the Second World War.

Mick Desmond said it became clear by mid-March that The AELTC would not be able to hold the usual Championships, however, holding them behind closed doors was not in the spirit of the Wimbledon brand. Added to that, 5,000 people are needed on site to support The Championships, and there was the welfare of the players to consider too.

“You can’t always be in control of your own destiny. We plan every single detail at Wimbledon. We go through the what if scenarios and crisis managements, but when it hits you, you still know you need to do more,” said Desmond.

Getting the Right Balance

The BOA is taking a phased approach to get Team GB back into operational mode, but it’s a long period to build back up to where the athletes were ahead of Tokyo – and there are no competitions along the way to work towards the medals.

The mental health implications are significant and the BOA continues to give real consideration to this important topic.

If the Olympics take place with full stadia next year, Andy Anson predicts they will be the most emotional Olympics ever. But substantial media revenues might yet allow for a closed event next year.

The AELTC meanwhile is working with its broadcast partners to give fans the opportunity to watch Wimbledon across all screens, bringing together some of Wimbledon’s best matches over time in the Greatest Championships, with further details to be announced next week.

And the Premier League returns albeit behind closed doors on June 17 when Arsenal plays Manchester City.

Getting the right balance it seems is key to meeting pent up demand for live sport both now and in the future.

All In It Together

Until a sense of normal returns, community remains the central focus for Wimbledon which plays a quiet but active role, leveraging its resources and stock which is being redirected towards hospitals and schools. More than 200 hot meals a day are being served from the Wingfield kitchen on-site to those in need in the local boroughs of Merton and Wandsworth via food rescue charity and AELTC partner, City Harvest.

Arsenal has run a local and global community programme for more than 30 years. Much of it happens under the radar. Over the last few weeks, Arsenal has driven NHS workers to work, developed learning materials for kids who can’t go to school, called more 3,500 vulnerable fans to check they are okay, and delivered 75 tonnes of essential food supplies to people in local London boroughs.

The BOA meanwhile partnered the British Red Cross with Team GB to celebrate kindness during Mental Health Awareness Week in a campaign which featured on the iconic Piccadilly Lights in London last month.

Ready For A Return to Euphoria

In summary, panel host Tim Bleakley said: “The feeling of a pent up demand for the return of live sport seems to go beyond the fix of your own team and touches upon missing that emotional feeling you get from great sporting moments. And that’s certainly something we have been talking about in the out of home industry to our customers. Being part of that euphoria when some of these things we have taken for granted all of our lives return.”

What’s also clear is that if you have the right values and can learn from each other, in the difficult times the power of those values shines through, giving all of us the confidence we need for tomorrow.

The Premier League returns on June 17 when Arsenal plays Manchester City. All matches will be played behind closed doors and broadcast live by Sky Sport, BT Sport, BBC Sport or Amazon Prime.

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