Of all the things that the Covid pandemic has affected, sport seems to be the least important. Despite what Bill Shankly said, it’s not more important than life or death – that reality has been brought into sharp focus over the past year.
But still, it remains a fact that for many, watching, following, crying over and loving sport is a crucial part of their life. It acts as a distraction, a joyful break in the routine of daily life.
It’s a chance to bond with other likeminded people, to be part of a tribe and something bigger than the individual. And when much of our freedoms have been removed in the face of the pandemic, the snatching away of that regular respite has been tough on many.
And it’s not just the fans who are suffering; the sporting institutions themselves are feeling the pain. A recent report from PwC estimates that the once runaway growth of sport has been checked hard by the pandemic, with growth expected to slow from 8 per cent to 3.3 per cent in the next three to five years.
And with nearly 50 per cent of respondents to that PwC survey believing sports revenues won’t recover until at least 2022, it looks like the misery for sporting institutions the world over is set to continue for some time.
But in every crisis there is opportunity, and one firm that believes it has a partial answer to the sporting world’s current malaise is Fantastec, set up and run by sports marketing veteran, Steve Madincea.
The purpose of Fantastec is to help global fans, those who follow a team they have little hope of seeing in real life, feel more connected to their sporting heroes. And while the firm has ambitions to use virtual and augmented reality technology to do that, its main driver for growth at the moment is SWAP, a platform where sports fans can swap collectibles with each other, trading and buying their way towards completing the set.
Steve Madincea, who set up and runs Fantastec
Readers old enough to remember Panini football stickers will be familiar with the concept – this is simply a digital version of that with added bells and whistles – and of course, in line with all things digital these days, it’s all transacted using blockchain technology.
For now, SWAP is focused on football and has signed up some of the game’s biggest names in the shape of Real Madrid, Borussia Dortmund and Arsenal, with ambitions to move into the lucrative world of American football and baseball in due course.
“This is a new proposition for the mobile first generation,” Madincea says.
“There’s nothing wrong with the analogue approach – we are just disrupting it. There are two driving factors - engagement and interaction with the team – because so many people are not going to go to a stadium.”
We turned our attention back to the fans – we knew fans built sport, and we know they are going to save it
While the original concept was to attract and engage those global fans, the Covid pandemic has seen the platform act as a lifeline for fans of those teams. But while SWAP keeps those fans engaged with their swapping and their hunting until normality returns, Madincea believes that the pandemic has seen to it that the sporting normality those fans and their clubs crave may never return.
“The idea came from the fact that there has been massive growth in the number of international football fans, and we asked teams what they were doing about it and the answer was nothing,” he says.
“We were in love with the problem of connecting sports fans using the latest technology, so we started testing the idea of SWAP in 2018 and users really liked completing the collections and networking with each other.”
And with three of the biggest names in club football on their books, the future looked bright. Until March 2020 when the shutters came down across the sporting world.
“We turned our attention back to the fans – we knew fans built sport, and we know they are going to save it,” he says.
But to allow fans to save sport, he believes clubs have to rethink their strategies around how fans are treated and how hard these clubs work to engage them. Which is easier said than done when the ritual of matchday has been torn away overnight. And it is this breaking of ritual that Madincea believes is the real threat to the long-term health of football.
“Fans could be lost to teams forever if this goes on too long,” he warns.
“That is what I would be most fearful of if I was running a club. It is going to be tough to draw fans back into the stadium – some will be frightened, some will show up but some simply won’t come back.”
Madincea says that there was an expectation that TV sports viewership would go up, but it has in fact gone down which may in part be down to the lack of atmosphere in empty stadiums and partly down to the fact people have found other things to do during lockdown.
“Sport has always been a joyful distraction from life but there are other distractions that are topping that now or other more urgent things that people need to focus on. This has broken people out of their rituals and habits,” he says.
“Teams are going to require retention and you have habits and rituals and comfort in match day. The fans are going to be the important thing here and if we can build retention capabilities, that is going to be the power.”
He says that most apps have 20 per cent retention after 90 days, but that through the summer and into September, SWAP maintained a 60 per cent retention rate which seems to suggest that the love for teams is still there – it’s the style of engagement that is changing.
Which could pose a huge existential problem for football teams long reliant upon matchday income and the colossal broadcast revenues that come on the back of that.
And even if clubs were confident that their fans will return once stadiums reopen, Madincea warns that the distance created by the pandemic may, for some fans, become permanent.
“The further you get away from a stadium the less tribal things are, and you have to address that. If people are less tribal, you need to retain the ones that are your loyal base,” he says, claiming the app’s data is showing this happening in real time.
So, what is the answer for the nation’s football clubs? While he might be expected to say that the answer is his app, Madincea believes that the real answer is much simpler – clubs need to remember the importance of their fans.
“Sport was on a huge growth trajectory and it got knocked off. You could pick yourself up and keep running up that hill but those that try to do that, are going to fail. I think this is a huge wake-up call for the sports industry and its fans,” he says.
He likens it to the wider realisation of the importance of jobs in nursing, teaching, transportation and the like, that the pandemic brought.
“I think clubs will look to deliver a better user experience at the stadiums, players will be more accommodating and there will be less tribalism,” he says, “It’s the fans who are going to save sport.”
It’s a rather comforting thought that out of the other side of this pandemic, it may be that a sporting world built by fans, but seemingly lost to the power of marketing and money, may finally come full circle, back to its roots.
To see where the article was published please visit the Independent