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For the fans

THE year 2020 has been a difficult one for sport, but more so for the fans. The Covid-19 pandemic saw the juggernaut that is world sport lurching in unchartered waters, buffeted by the waves of uncertainty.

Sports Panorama:mike madodA

Sports teams, leagues and even the celebrated and well-heeled sports merchandise companies, Nike and Adidas being the most prominent, could do little to stem the tide of financial losses that came their way.

TV companies too were not spared as the whistle was blown on action and advertising revenue. With the world undergoing a lockdown at the end of March, sport was deprived of its single most important asset — the fan.

While the pandemic by in large prevented the direct participation of fans in almost every sporting market, solutions were found to ensure that they remained a central part of the story.

Traditional and digital platforms were exploited in this regard and the wheels of sport were kept turning, slowly, but turning nevertheless. The importance of fans was not lost upon the major football leagues of Europe, the NBA, international cricket and super rugby, who all found new and innovative ways to keep their followers engaged at a time when direct contact was prohibited by most governments around the world.

After months of cancellations due to the virus, action returned, albeit under very different conditions. Football leagues in England, Germany, Spain and Italy resumed playing with crowd noise piped into empty stadiums, but even that was not enough as they soon realised that the fan could not be replaced — not even by the best technology. Debate and discussion soon evolved from health and safety protocols for the athletes, to how fans could be reintegrated into the matrix. And sure enough, we are beginning to see a splattering of fans returning, not only to add colour and atmosphere to sporting contests, but more importantly, provide the income that drives the industry.

And the fans themselves have missed the therapeutic benefits that come with their weekly pilgrimages to their favourite cathedrals of action. Being a sports fan is a “very psychologically healthy activity,” writes Professor Daniel Wann, of Murray State University whose research program focuses on the psychology of sport fans.

Fandom connects us to like-minded people, which satisfies our human need for belonging, he says. These relationships are significant: People who identify as sports fans have higher levels of self-esteem, lower levels of loneliness and tend to be more satisfied with their lives compared to those who are not interested in sport.

But sadly, an appreciation of this reciprocal relationship is lacking in Africa. Save for, perhaps South Africa whose sports industry is closer in form and function to Europe than the rest of the continent, fans are seen as expendable, unimportant and often an unwelcome distraction.

In Zimbabwe, their importance has often been restricted to the value of the ticket they buy on matchday, with little or no consideration given to them in other facets of the industry.

We have reduced fans to nothing but a number, prisoners to the whims and caprices of sports administrators and business executives — the Nelson Mandela’s of sport’s Robben Island. The reality is, the fans are asked to pay the bill but are not allowed to sit at the table.

It is high time the sports industry on the continent realises that the key to unlocking value lies with the fans. If sport, especially football, on the continent is to achieve the desired growth, stakeholders need to recognise that the biggest stake belongs to the fan. It is the fans’ passion and patronage of the beautiful game that fuels the commercial machine we see today. Without the feet through the turnstiles and eyes on screens, it would not be the multi-billion-dollar industry it has evolved into.

Fans are the reason why brands partner with sport — they are the most important ingredient in the marketing mix. In mature markets, an effort has been made to understand who fans are, where they are and what motivates them — all critical factors for any brand that would seek to wade into the waters of sports sponsorship. Almost half of the world’s population follows football and the digital revolution has added significantly to these numbers as content is readily available on a number of platforms. This increased consumption is what is driving up corporate expenditure as brands jostle for exposure. Zimbabwe and Africa must not be left behind.

Remove the fans and what you are left with is a purely sporting contest and no theatre. Sport is now about entertainment more than it is just about physical prowess and your ability to entertain, retain attention and grow audiences is what will sustain and grow your team.

More respect and appreciation need to be shown to the fans who are in essence, the fuel for the sports industry.

hey are the central cog to the commercial engine that is driving it forward. Instead of being viewed as expendable, administrators and brands must embrace the fan. As we wrap up what has largely been a forgettable year for sports fans, especially in Zimbabwe, may 2021 present us the opportunity to do better by the fans and honour their importance in sport.

Happy holidays everybody! Play it safe nd keep it clean.

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