They’re engaged… Digitally, we mean. From club news and behind-the-scenes videos to interviews with players, giggle-inducing GIFs and matchday memes, for many of Bristol’s big sports teams, entertaining, original content is a must, says Jeremy Blackmore.
Sport in the South West is leading the way in revolutionising how clubs engage with fans, including those not able to attend live fixtures. Digital media and live streaming have opened up access to players and allowed fans to go behind the scenes in ever more creative ways.
Social media engagement with supporters has grown steadily in recent years, but live streaming of cricket in particular has revealed a huge ‘hidden’ audience, with a growing appetite for exclusives and updates about their favourite teams.
Many of our sports clubs embraced social media initially as another channel to keep fans informed. Now though, engagement is the name of the game with entertaining, original content a must-have. There’s a commercial imperative, too; impressive digital numbers help attract sponsorship and grow brands and businesses.
Somerset County Cricket Club have been pioneers, coming out on top in a recent report into digital engagement by search marketing agency Red Hot Penny. The report looked at 80 professional sports clubs across the UK and Ireland and revealed that Somerset had the most engaged following, beating football teams such as Celtic, Tottenham Hotspur and Everton. “The way cricket is being consumed is changing and social media provides the perfect outlet for content, allowing fans from both near and far to stay connected to the club,” said Sarah Trunks, Somerset’s strategy director, commenting on their table topping score.
Digital marketing and communications executive Ben Warren is responsible for much of Somerset’s digital content. “Obviously we were delighted when we saw the published results,” he says. “While we don’t have the resources of a major football team, we have a really committed fan base and we are very grateful for all the support we receive. We’re determined to provide the best possible digital experience for fans.”
Increasingly, clubs accept that not every fan can make it through the gates every week. Bristol City say it is pivotal that a matchday experience can still be enjoyed, even if a supporter is not physically there.
At Bristol Bears, media manager Will Carpenter says the club’s digital engagement has shown just how widespread their fan base is. “It really opens your eyes to the fact that people who have grown up supporting Bristol move away, but still remain supporters. Social media enables them to stay connected with the club they love from anywhere in the world.”
There are three pillars to Warren’s approach to digital engagement at Somerset: informing (club news, match updates, scores, fixture lists); persuasion (club promotions, membership packages); and, increasingly, a focus on entertainment (behind-the-scenes videos, interviews with coaches and players, GIFs and memes). It helps drive engagement and allows fans to get to know players and coaches better – and filling the gaps between matches with content that makes supporters feel part of the club is something Somerset excel at. Recent content has included Facebook Q&As and videos of players showing off their culinary skills on Shrove Tuesday as well as a fielding masterclass from skipper Tom Abell. Fans also voted to decide Somerset’s team of the decade.
Red Hot Penny note, though, that not every club gets it right: “With a passionate army of dedicated, life-long fans to engage with, a wealth of sponsors to work with and easy access to athletes-come-influencers, many may think running the marketing for a professional sports club and engaging fans on social media is an easy job. But posting a few pictures of a star player on Twitter or Instagramming a hastily cobbled together highlights reel from last night’s match just won’t cut it. Fans want richer, more engaging content that makes them feel a deeper connection to the club they follow and the sport they love.”
Having fun with it
Bristol Flyers are the country’s best performing basketball club according to Red Hot Penny’s research, while Bristol Bears are another club that has made the shift towards entertaining content to engage their fanbase. They have embraced the opportunity to be more creative, particularly around player signings. The video announcing the signing of Fijian wing Semi Radradra was filmed as a parody of Good Will Hunting and attracted a huge social media response. “It’s important to not always take yourself too seriously,” says Carpenter. “As much as we want to maintain a professional standard, with making sure our fans know what’s going on, there’s also an element of just having a bit of fun with it.”
It is a testament to the skills and ingenuity of small media teams at many local clubs that they can work to tight deadlines and post such engaging content. On football transfer day, for example, Bristol City’s media team headed to the team hotel in London and turned around a player announcement video in less than 20 minutes.
Bristol Motor Club also produce a range of posts with images and videos while Throwback Thursday posts showcase their rich 109-year history. While the entertainment factor has become the focus for social media activity, using these channels to provide basic information is still important as they are now the first port of call for many fans.
This has led to a shift in the use of other channels, with many websites serving almost as an archive, although the balance is important. Social media posts can usefully direct people to websites, particularly to special promotions and other commercial transactions. The way clubs use YouTube, once the go-to for video content, has also changed. Many now post videos first on social media feeds and then archive them on YouTube.
Producing entertaining content would not be possible without building understanding and trust among players and coaches. Warren and Carpenter both highlight how supportive their players are, many of whom have grown up with social media themselves.
The Bristol Bears rebrand gave the media team a bold new platform to do things differently with encouragement from senior managers. Director of rugby Pat Lam has afforded unprecedented behind-the-scenes access which ensures the players are relaxed and natural when being filmed. “The coaches need to understand and support what you’re doing,” says Carpenter. “There’s no frostiness, no ‘what’s he doing here, why are you doing that?’. They’re fully on board and that is a huge part of why we’ve been able to be successful digitally over the last two or three seasons.”
Goals and GIFs: good for business
As Red Hot Penny’s report states, there is also a commercial imperative beyond providing a better service for fans: “Clubs have an opportunity to capitalise on their social media followings to drive more fans to matches, sign them up to membership packages and boost commercial revenues by having them buy the latest kit and merchandise.”
“There are commercial opportunities with it,” agrees Neil Priscott, commercial and marketing director at Gloucestershire Cricket. He acknowledges that the more views of the club’s digital content there are, the more attractive it becomes to potential sponsors. “If we’re driving more eyeballs to our content, we are more investable in terms of digital sponsorship. That’s absolutely where we want to be. You do need a return, but we feel in driving our digital content as we are, we are starting to see that and of course our users are getting a better product.”
Digital engagement and streaming have revealed the extent of interest in cricket’s County Championship. Scheduling of matches sometimes prevents people from attending, but there is clearly a much broader audience following the tournament across the UK and further afield.
The dynamic nature of social media also gives fans a platform to provide feedback, often in real time. The Bears’ more light-hearted tone to their signing videos has gone down well with fans, says Carpenter.
“Initially with the rebrand, the fans had mixed views. But looking back now, I think they can certainly see the way that it’s worked. The results that we’ve had, especially in the last two seasons, have helped show that the club’s in a really good place. That’s reflected digitally with the figures that we’ve achieved. Fans have noticed especially a change in our approach on social media and I think they’re enjoying it. We are always keen to get feedback from supporters.”
Indeed, last year’s pre-season documentaries came as a result of Bears fans asking for an insight into what happens behind the scenes.
Gloucestershire Cricket are developing innovative digital technology to enhance the matchday experience for those at the County Ground as well as those following from afar. Priscott says that will include a new app, due for launch later this season, as well as LED screens and digital signs.
“Fans will be able to utilise some really cool facilities on our app while they’re in our ground using our free wi-fi and watching the cricket and getting some of the replays on some of the screens around the ground. That is where we’re heading. It’s really important. We want to give people a really good reason to want to stay, enjoy their time here and return.” Bristol City are also enhancing fans’ matchday experiences with an innovative new app. It allows supporters to post their own videos and pictures – be it on their journey to the ground, cheers from the stands or recorded post-match summaries. The best of the bunch are shared across City’s channels. The app also features a personalised news feed with picture and video galleries, a matchday countdown, access to Robins TV including live video and audio streaming on matchdays, full fixtures and results section, a facility to buy tickets and purchase items from the shop and augmented reality content.
Swimming with the stream
County cricket has seen a revolution with the advent of free live streaming of matches (other than those broadcast on Sky). Fans can follow via clubs’ websites and watch on devices and TV through YouTube.
Somerset achieved record numbers in 2019 with over two million views. This was despite coverage being restricted to the analysts’ cameras at either end of the ground. Now Somerset are installing four further static cameras to complement the two currently in operation. Working with Bristol-based technology company MyActionReplay, the club will enhance the stream so that additional angles can be covered during play.
Graphic overlays display all key information, while there is a pause and rewind function with live BBC radio commentary synced to the action.
“It’s clear there is a huge audience for county cricket and we are always aiming to make it easier to follow the club both at the ground and from afar,” says Warren. “We are working really hard to make the service better and feel that having additional cameras around the ground will help capture footage that we previously missed. If someone takes an amazing catch at mid-wicket for example, we want people outside of the ground to view this content. It’s an exciting opportunity for us to deliver an even better digital service to our fans.”
Likewise, Gloucestershire place a major emphasis on live streaming and will also deploy six cameras this season. “We’re not pretending we’re full production TV values because we’re not and we can’t go to those lengths,” says Priscott. “But we do want to capture great content for our fans and give them the view of the whole ground. We want to go to the next level, so we’re being pretty ambitious.”
Robins TV, Bristol City’s official video channel, has undergone a transformation, allowing fans to stay closer to the action. It gives free access to all behind-the-scenes content from player and coach interviews to match highlights and analysis. Overseas supporters can subscribe to City’s established international live streaming service which allows them to watch each match, provided it isn’t selected for TV broadcast.
Coverage includes a pre-match show featuring player and coach interviews, while in-game there is full commentary with expert analysis, replays, multi-camera angles and graphics. For the second year in a row, City are also streaming to domestic fans all matches which fall outside of the broadcast blackout (those fixtures not played on Saturday afternoons).
Due to broadcasting regulations, Robins TV is not allowed to video stream Emirates FA Cup and Carabao Cup fixtures as well as matches chosen for Sky Sports/overseas broadcast. An audio-only stream is still available through Robins TV. Meanwhile, Bristol Motor Club assembled a core group of volunteers to build a live streaming setup last summer. Andy Laurence says the club will develop that further this season: “We made a decision to invest in some equipment to improve our live streaming capability for social media. We have a team of five volunteers running eight cameras at our Great Western Sprint.”
There is a busy routine around matchdays for our sports clubs. In the build-up, media teams post team line-ups on social media and websites, with filmed interviews with coaches and players, key stats and details of the opposition. Clips of players arriving at the ground or warming up are other ways to build momentum.
Media teams work with designers to create bespoke pre-prepared graphics and animated GIFs for each digital platform, often as soon as fixtures lists are announced. It allows them to readily deploy images on social media for every player milestone, wicket, goal or try. They also have near-instant access to images during play. It all helps tell the story of the day in a timely – and engaging – way.
While Warren is able to post short clips of key moments on social media during play, broadcast restrictions prevent Carpenter from doing similar until after the match. Here colleague Tom Vaux’s input is vital. Before the game, Vaux films short segments with Bears fans or any promotions going on at the ground – for example, player appearances in the shop. Vaux is also pitch-side during games, filming live reaction from the bench when the Bears score. This can be posted immediately on social media. One of the coaches will also record a short interview at half-time as will substituted players. Many clubs also stream post-match press conferences on their social feeds and post a written match report on their websites, with highlights reels on social media, websites and YouTube.
With sport being consumed in increasingly different ways, our clubs are at the forefront of using tech to allow fans to follow their favourite teams whether at the ground or from afar. The commercial prize is high and we can expect to see more innovation in years ahead.