How sports businesses in Southeast Asia thrive during pandemic

It’s been a long two years for those in the sports industry.

Following various lockdowns, nervous sports administrators across the region now incorporate Covid-19 pandemic protocols into their standard operating procedures (SOPs), and wait for their governments to allow fields and stadiums to be fully occupied, matches to be played, and races to be held.

What seemed like a potential short-term irritant, has turned into a two-year battle for survival for many stakeholders of sports in the region. Media rights and sponsorships dried up. No events meant no content for broadcast partners and advertisers. Revenue was down, if not gone.

Some smaller organisers had to shutter their businesses. Many had to lay off staff, hunker down, and weather it out.

The pandemic has changed the sporting landscape, content consumption patterns, and even the behaviour of the casual social athlete.

However, I have noticed some organisers and stakeholders in sports who are setting great examples on how they will come out of this pandemic by being nimble, working with foresight, and with strong business acumen, while never compromising on delivering only the best they can to their consumers and partners.

Refresh, recreate a new niche

Liga Mahasiswa Indonesia (LIMA), the Indonesian equivalent of the American NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), was badly hit by the pandemic.

For the uninitiated, LIMA is one of the largest sports leagues in Indonesia – featuring seven sports, participated by students from 300 universities across Indonesia.

This year-long sporting extravaganza boasts an annual viewership of over 30 million, with crowds exceeding 100,000.

When Covid-19 hit the republic, LIMA founder and comissioner Ryan Gozali had to deal with his worst fears. After building LIMA over the past nine years, he faced empty stadiums and uncertain times.

LIMA, however, pivoted quickly and jumped into the virtual world. It launched the LIMA eSports League.

Luckily, the organisation had already invested in digital broadcasting before the pandemic. But they had to ramp things up to keep competitive in a crowded market for content consumption.

The key was not to do things for the sake of doing them. LIMA had to ensure quality programming, irrespective of whether they were able to break even. Staff had to be retrained, and LIMA embraced more digital natives into their fold.

LIMA is now back on track to re-launch the physical sports league this month with full safety measures. Except now, they are able to add a dynamic new category to their already impressive portfolio.

Caring for its own

The Singapore Slingers were in the middle of the Asean Basketball League’s 10th season, playing for a playoff slot, when borders started closing.

Being Singapore’s only professional basketball team, the Slingers found themselves in a situation where the league had to be stopped midway. While their players’ professional contracts ran through the 2019/20 season, the cagers were worried that their wages would be affected due to cancelled game-day revenues and reduced sponsorships.

The team ownership decided they would honour all contracts and paid all their Singaporean and import players.

Not only that, the Slingers re-contracted some of their players to work with the team. These players would help with the Slingers’ development work for Singapore’s Active Sg Basketball Academy.

Some of the players started their own businesses, such as manufacturing T-shirts and home-grown backpack brands.

The management supported these endeavours by promoting the products via the team’s social media platforms, as well as their members’ database.

The Slingers also got their players involved with valuable brand marketing projects. This included product launches for fashion brands and the launch of the movie, Space Jam 2.

Fast-tracking future plans

Initially, Covid-19 was something Two Wheels Motor Racing director Ron Hogg thought would not last beyond 2020.

When it looked like the coronavirus was not going away anytime soon, Hogg and his team at Two Wheels Motor Racing – the organisers of the Asian Road Racing Championships (ARRC) – had to move fast to create new content on all their media platforms to keep their sponsors and partners happy.

The ARRC enjoyed a massive following across all media platforms. For example, every race in the region gets at least two million unique views on their Facebook Live.

Hogg and his team had invested in digital broadcast equipment with plans to set up their own studio. With Covid-19, they fast-tracked the completion of the studio and started pumping out content to keep their fans engaged with fresh content.

This included studio shows and stories about their riders and teams. With this new emphasis, they also started training professional riders on being media personalities and being comfortable in front of a camera.

Through these efforts, ARRC’s sponsors have stuck with them and all the participating professional teams during these difficult times.

None of the personnel were laid off, while the riders, engineers, mechanics and other staff remained on board as they waited for the greenlight for races to begin.

Investing in bread-and-butter businesses

Jom Run is a regional running race registration mobile application and a race organiser. It has one of the largest running communities on its application with a member base of one million.

The company’s bread-and-butter income was basically derived from the thousands of runners who would register for runs every weekend across the region.

The lockdowns meant no physical races. The company had to let staff go.

Like many others in the industry, they adapted by organising virtual runs, but realised that the market for physical and virtual races was very different.

Even when revenue started to trickle back in, it was still a far cry from the income obtained pre-Covid-19.

With no protocols in place to allow mass participation, there did not seem to be much else to work on. It was time to wait for vaccination programmes around the region to take effect, with the hope that physical sports competed by enthusiasts in large numbers will eventually be allowed.

During this time, Jom Run founder Yi Hern Chang decided to invest in the technology development of the mobile application and to improve its features.

This would give them more breadth and flexibility in the future.

In the midst of the pandemic, they also saw an opportunity to expand their business.

Ultron, the largest finisher T-shirt manufacturer, was up for sale. Jom Run, already entrenched in the running space, decided it was the best time to expand their business portfolio, and bought over Ultron.

The acquisition meant Jom Run has added a valuable revenue generator to its business.

Hearts and minds approach to brand building pays off in tough times

The Spanish La Liga office in Asia has a very unique approach in the region, compared to many global sports organisations.

To promote Spanish football, they adopted a boots-on-ground approach in Asia, having representatives or delegates spread across the region.

These delegates are based in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Ho Chi Minh, Manila, Bangkok, Seoul, and Sydney. What separates La Liga from their competitors is that sales are not their main key performance indicator (KPI).

Their priority is to work closely with stakeholders of football in the region with outreach programmes and partnerships to add value to each domestic market, while building the La Liga fanbase in each country.

La Liga works closely to support institutional partners, such as national football associations in the region. This includes workshops on club management systems and economic controls.

In this area, they have signed memorandums of understanding (MoUs) with football federations in Malaysia, Thailand, and Japan.

They are also creative when reaching out to fans. For example, in Indonesia, they worked with the creator of a popular comic book character, Si Juki, and created a series that had Si Juki visit Spain and attend La Liga games.

They also worked on programmes with popular celebrities in Korea, such as members of Super Junior.

In Malaysia, La Liga worked with popular online football website Semuanya Bola to bring La Liga closer to its Malaysian fan base. This included Bahasa Malaysia commentary for selected televised games.

When borders closed and regional travel was halted, it was business as usual for La Liga as they already had their delegates in all the major markets. Having their delegates in the region, who were well-versed on all aspects with the stakeholders – from local culture to relationships – helped La Liga build their brand and business, even in the uncertain pandemic years.

What now is the future for sports in our region?

There is cautious optimism that things will open up soon. But the landscape has changed.

For one, organisational costs will definitely escalate for the short, to mid-term. This is to factor in health testing protocols, especially for mass participation events and large stadium attendances.

Organisers have to factor in the health of participants and their own teams. In some areas, organisers are also contemplating creating a ‘Team A’ and a back-up team, just in case one group has an outbreak closer to an event.

For regional sports leagues, there will be the eventual headache of coordinating with the domestic league schedules of all their participating countries before even trying to plan their own league into what may be a crowded sporting calendar this year.

They will be hoping for uniform Covid travel protocols across the region so that international travel will not be chaos for travelling teams.

Organisers of mass participation events like marathons, and markets for fitness enthusiasts, like gymnasiums, will wonder if the last two years of isolation affected the appetites of the casual athlete.

Will they congregate back to feel the thrill and rush of running with thousands on a Sunday morning, or will they prefer other activities, such as virtually bonding with others on the Zwift platform in the comfort of their own homes?

Stakeholders in sports are already adjusting their approaches as I write this.

Plans are being made to sustain at least for the next 12 to 18 months of uncertainty.

Competition formats and back-up formats are being run through simulations. Bubble tournaments are now a term. Those that come through this, will be stronger, more agile, and resilient.

It’s going to be an interesting time ahead. The rebirth of sports now begins.

This is the personal opinion of the writer and does not necessarily represent the views of Twentytwo13.

Article take from:

Writer: Kuhan Foo