Pandemic easing but will sports fans flock back to stadiums like they used to?

“When these things happen, it’s week-in, week-out sports and leagues that are the hardest hit,” said A-Leagues managing director Danny Townsend. “The experience-based matches or events will always be the more resilient.

“It was the first World Cup qualifier of consequence in Melbourne for years. You either went to that or you don’t see another for a long time. We’ve had [A-League] matches with three days’ notice sprung on clubs. I can’t understand how hard it’s been to schedule, let alone to then get people to follow that schedule. It’s not surprising we’re in the place we’re at, but the great news is that we’re in there fighting still. “

The NBL, which had been trending in the other direction in terms of popularity, has actually had its average attendance increase this summer, albeit marginally, from 4012 (20-21 season) to 4653 while riding the Omicron wave.

The strong crowd at the NRL All-Stars match in Parramatta indicates there is also a strong appetite for live rugby league, as well as the decent numbers fronting up for recent trial matches.

The Maori All Stars perform their war cry before their clash against the Indigenous All Stars.Credit:Getty

“We’re really excited to welcome our fans back to our games and our All-Stars matches have shown that our fans are excited to be back,” NRL chief executive Andrew Abdo said. “We had over 25,000 fans brave wet weather for the All-Stars matches and I’m sure we will see fans who love live sports returning to the game across the country.

“Our Magic Round tickets went on sale a couple of weeks ago and already sales are up by more than 20 per cent on last year. Our team is thinking innovatively to enhance the game-day experience in 2022 because we want to welcome our fans back to a new level of game day experience. ”

Then there’s the cricket. Crowds for the Ashes series were down historically, which can probably be almost entirely blamed on Omicron given the immovable cultural status of Tests in Australia. But the Big Bash League, which has struggled through an ill-advised expansion of the season, was also down, while the T20 international series between Australia and Sri Lanka averaged only 11,350 across five matches in Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra. Not so long ago, these were almost instant sell-outs.

“It’ll be interesting to see how AFL and our winter sports respond this year to crowds returning. I think people are still reluctant to get out and about, ”new Cricket Australia chair Lachlan Henderson told SEN Radio this week. “We’ve got to be a little bit careful to cast judgment on what’s gone on.”

But Con Stavros, a sports marketing expert and associate professor at RMIT, sees the Sri Lanka T20 series as a textbook example of poor marketing and execution, and how contests without a defined purpose, meaning or narrative will be the first ones overlooked by fans.

The T20 International Series between Australia and Sri Lanka was played before small crowds.

The T20 International Series between Australia and Sri Lanka was played before small crowds.Credit:Getty

“It’s a T20 series, but what’s at stake?” he said.

“It’s not the Ashes, which does get that extra marketing push from the sponsors and media. Someone has to do that work, and I think you can’t just wait and hope that people will turn up. You’ve got to give them a reason to engage. That can be lacking in some sports. ”

As the pandemic has done in so many other spheres of life, Stavros believes it has accelerated and amplified existing trends in Australian sport.

“I don’t buy that people are scared,” Stavros said.

“Maybe that applied a few months ago, but I was in Sydney in January, walking around – it was quiet, quieter than it normally is, but I got the sense there’s a plenty of people that still want to go out and do things. I went to the [Australian Open] tennis and there were still restrictions but it was still crowded, a lot of people wanted to go.

“The big things, people won’t be put off. There’s a real appetite for them, but there’s a lot of entertainment options out there, and so the quality has to be there. The Big Bash has agreed that they went too big, too many games, people lost coherence of it all.

“And so that brings a challenge because people are going to be a bit more picky about what they want to invest their valuable time into. I think COVID’s sharpened it. People have become, particularly in Australia, more of a sports connoisseur. ”

There is much that can be learned from the COVID experience in the United States, albeit with the caveat that it has been – mercifully – very different to what Australians have lived through. This same sense of trepidation about the return of crowds swept through the American sports industry and conducted to be largely unfounded, with a Nielsen survey in July finding that 80 per cent of fans were ready to attend live events again within five months.

“People, definitely, are roaring back,” Dan August, the vice president of strategy for the Los Angeles Rams, the newly crowned Super Bowl champions, told the Sydney Morning Herald & The Age.

“We were a bit skittish when we were doing business plans back in April of 2021 – we were like,‘ ooh, are people going to be coming back? What if we’re in a wave, what’s going to happen? ‘ It did not have an impact.

People, definitely, are roaring back.

Dan August

“Omicron was spiking towards the end of our season and we had some of our top games. [There is] pent-up demand for the experiential world. The demand to be social with others, get out there, experience the world, we felt was going to come back and be stronger than ever, and we still believe that. ”

But August said there were a mix of views that fans held around COVID and that teams and sporting organizations had to account for all of them when trying to attract them back to in-person attendance.

“I do think there’s a group of folks who are like,‘ well, it’s cheaper to stay at home, it’s easier ’- you definitely have to up your game for those folks. You have to show them the value, ”he said.

One way of doing that is improving the match-day experience. The LA Rams boast one of the world’s best new stadiums, SoFi Stadium, a glistening coliseum which can seat over 100,000 people for major events, and has a double-sided 4K HDR video screen, which displays 80 million pixels, hanging over the field.

A visit there for the Super Bowl inspired ex-Collingwood president and AFL identity Eddie McGuire to start canvassing a major renovation of the MCG. The new Sydney Football Stadium, due to open later this year, should provide a major boost to its regular tenants, as other new or renovated venues across the country have done.

The Super Bowl half-time show was a hit with the sellout crowd at SoFi Stadium.

The Super Bowl half-time show was a hit with the sellout crowd at SoFi Stadium.Credit:Getty Images

The reason that teams are investing in new stadiums, or upgrading their stadiums, is to make sure you’ve got top Wi-Fi, make sure your video [screen] is second-to-none, so it competes with the at-home experience or makes it better, ”August said.

“You need to show them, here’s why you get off your coach. The food is going to be spectacular, the social atmosphere spectacular – things you can’t experience at home. [It’s] what’s needed nowadays, but that was before COVID. People wanted to experience something, but they wanted a top-notch experience. ”

Townsend is watching on with a degree of envy as the AFL and NRL prepare to launch their seasons, conveniently after the Omicron peak, with the ability to see what has and hasn’t worked over the summer.

“It’s clear we’re through the worst of it – well, I’ve said that before and been wrong,” Townsend said.

“We’re not out of the woods yet, we’re not in a position where people can move around freely without having to be concerned about getting COVID. But in principle … the relaxing of protocols and restrictions means people have more confidence they’re going to be able to go to these events and not put their health at risk.

“I actually think it’ll be good that we get a full AFL and NRL season away with, fingers crossed, no disruption to it, which will get people back into that habitual cycle of attending sports events. And by the time our new season starts, this stop-start nature we’ve dealt with is behind us. ”

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