Crowds are down – but is it a concern? What the world can learn from the return of crowds in the APAC region

Shaun Lumsden

As the UK begins to welcome back live crowds across the sports and entertainment industry, what lessons can be learnt from Australia and New Zealand, who have begun to live the new ‘normal’?

Low Australian Crowd Numbers

For those of us lucky enough to attend sporting events over the last few months, there is no escaping from the fact that the in-venue experience has changed. From wearing a mask, to using digital tickets, being unable to reserve your regular reserved seats, and slow ingress and egress, the in-venue experience has fundamentally changed.

Factors outside the stadium experience have also been an issue for fans. With most of the workforce adopting a hybrid work from home model, last minute decisions to attend sporting events are becoming less common. Those who do venture out are faced with barriers including compulsory mask wearing on public transport, taxis and rideshares in addition to uncertainty due to rolling fixture announcements.

All these factors, combined with sections of the community who are reluctant to head out in crowded public spaces, have all been contributing factors to the low attendance rates.

The two biggest sporting codes in Australia have seen reductions in their utilized capacity across the first eight rounds of the season. The AFL’s utilized capacity has fallen to 57% in 2021 compared to 62% in 2019. Similarly, the NRL has fallen to 43% in 2021 from 46% in 2019. On the face of it those numbers don’t look bad, but we need to recognize that they are not benchmarked against full capacities, rather they’re a function of capacity restrictions which – based on varying state regulations – have ranged from 50 – 85%.

Have We Made the At-Home Experience Too Good?

The industry has seen progress in digital thinking which would normally need years, instead happen in a matter of months.

Video streaming services have continued to capitalize on the growth experienced during the pandemic. Stan Sport (Nine’s sports DTC service) and Kayo (Foxtel’s OTT video service) have hit record subscriber numbers and are intensifying an already competitive media landscape ahead of expiring broadcast agreements.

Social distancing restrictions have accelerated new broadcast technologies, best highlighted throughout the Australian Summer of cricket. Flying-fox cameras were used to interview players on the field, AI technology facilitated an enriched second screen experience and the now very familiar QR code provided new opportunities for brand partners to tangibly interact with TV audiences.

Away from the broadcast, traditional metrics (membership, social and digital engagement) used to measure league health continue to increase. The AFL has recently hit 1 million club members and is on track to post its highest ever membership tally with five clubs already posting record-breaking numbers in 2021.  From a digital perspective, the NRL has gone from 3.5m to 4.5m viewers per week on their network since the return of play in 2021 and social numbers continue to venture into unchartered territory.

The pandemic has given birth to a host of non-traditional revenue streams such as club marketplaces and NFT’s which have been supported by emerging technologies.

What Should the UK be Thinking About?

As fans trickle back into venues this week across the UK, it will be evident to attendees that we have entered a new ‘normal’ in regard to the in-venue experience.

The pandemic has seen a paradigm shift towards digital, and fans’ expectations have heightened accordingly. Here are some tips about what to expect as fans return to the live event:

  • The second screen is here to stay. Twitter, OTT platforms, Discord and inner sanctum experiences were a mainstay throughout the pandemic and will continue when fans scan back into the arena with their smart phones.
  • Leverage your digital channels to enhance the physical presence. Apps, competitions, AR and exclusive social media content, which were so popular throughout the pandemic, should be activated in venue as well as pre- and post-match.
  • Continue to grow your addressable audience locally and abroad. The reintroduction of live spectator sport is another authentic engagement tool which can be utilized to continue to attract fans.
  • Clearly communicate your ticketing challenges and simplify the purchase process whilst reiterating safety measures.

With some sports now hosting their first (albeit capacity-limited) crowds in more than a year, there are early indications that not everyone is as enthusiastic about returning as we would have liked. PTI envisaged a scenario similar to that which has occurred in Australia, where once the initial itch was scratched, many would take a more cautious approach. Perhaps the restrictions in place don’t quite make the experience quite what we remember pre-pandemic and at the same time the improved digital experience ex-venue makes staying at home even more attractive.

As the adage goes, out of adversity comes opportunity. The pandemic has forced us all to adjust our lives and embrace the digital world in ways we could not have envisaged 15 months ago. As more sporting fans begin to venture back into venues, we are presented with an opportunity to enhance the physical experience through the strategies we have learnt since the start of the pandemic.

We must hope for the best but we must also have a plan B – with the excitement of fans returning, and the hope for increased capacities across the English summer, it is prudent to be aware of the trends emerging from the Australian experience. If it is going to take some time for traditional revenue streams to return to their pre-pandemic levels then we need to be thinking about other approaches being a critical long-term solution.

PTI Digital are working with a number of clients on just that: the COVID pandemic has highlighted that the traditional commercial model is atrophying rapidly, but the digital age enables the broadening of audiences, insight-led product development and brand diversification, improved customer experiences and D2C sponsorship, amongst other opportunities. Please contact info@ptidigitalgroup.com if you would like to know more.

Further Reading on the Australian experience:

Share this