Live streaming in sports during the pandemic era

Sport teams are increasingly using social media to engage with fans during the pandemic.

Story by Rei Fortes.

Social media live streaming has brought a new level of connection between sports fans and their favourite teams as COVID-19 halted several competitions since 2020. With a lack of traditional sporting broadcasts through over the top services (OTT) and limited access to fans, sporting organisations began live streaming through social media to keep fans engaged with their teams.

Various sporting leagues such as the Australian Football League (AFL), National Rugby League (NRL) and Netball Australia turned to using social live streaming services (SLSS) via Facebook Live and Instagram to allow real-time interactions between fans and their favourite athletes.

“In live streaming, you bring fans into this intimate niche environment and it has the potential to create a great engaging connection among fans and the follower base,” says Dr Ashleigh-Jane Thompson, Lecturer and Program Director at La Trobe University’s Business School.

Dr Thompson, in collaboration with Dr Sarah Wymer of Griffith University and Professor Andrew Martin from Massey University in New Zealand, conducted a study on sporting organisations’ use of SLSS to maintain engagement with the sporting community during the height of COVID-19.

The AFL was one of the primary sporting leagues that used SLSS to connect fans and athletes while everyone was in isolation. Greater Western Sydney Giants (GWS) Football club posted an IGTV video on Instagram showing athletes thanking fans for their continued support and resilience through the pandemic.

Several NFL teams also experimented with SLSS such as the Queensland Maroons taking a historical approach showcasing Facebook live streams with former players commentating on previous matches with their “Masters of the decade” series.

“There’s definitely that idea of creating a community connection. Even just fans being able to comment amongst each other when they’re watching the live stream is one of the key components of that social live streaming experience,” says Dr Thompson.

This trend of “athlete-focused” content became popular amongst sporting teams as athletes took control of their club’s official social media account, showing a more relatable side of themselves outside of a game.

“Live streaming was one of the ways that a number of sporting organisations tried to emulate that social connection. It helps showcase athletes within a sporting environment as humans and have that personal side to it,” says Dr Thompson.

The research study also acknowledges that traditional broadcasting of sports via services such as Optus sports, Stan sports, ESPEN and Amazon Prime is still the primary way fans watch their favourite teams in action. Although, COVID-19 has provided an opportunity for sporting organisations to utilise SLSS via social media alongside match broadcasts.

“Once the traditional broadcast ends, we can take fans into the dressing room and see how teams are celebrating after a match or what happens in the lead-up to a game,” says Dr Thompson.

“Social media live streaming tends to be an ancillary product where you’ve got behind the scenes content, as opposed to game content itself.”

Dr Thompson believes that online streaming of sporting content using SLSS will become a more supplementary experience alongside traditional broadcasts as sporting organisations increase their use of social live streaming outside of games.

The study suggests that the next step for sporting organisations is to develop regulations on how to manage these social media live streaming events to determine what type of content teams and athletes are allowed to show.

“Sporting organisations must know the team, the context that they’re in and any risk management approach, anticipating risks that might come depending on the livestream situation,” says Dr Thompson.