What combat sports can learn from football’s comms playbook….
The two have similar audience demographics, the ticket buying fans are as vocal and loyal in both disciplines and their trailblazing athletes are more often than not from the similar backgrounds. So why do combat sports, and those in it, keep getting it so wrong in comparison to their footballing counterparts with regards to their comms and PR?
Those familiar with the boxing world will have seen recently one high-profile boxer offering large sums to workers of the NHS that tweet him sob stories, a promoter offering money to have a social-media troll handed a lesson in the ring and now an ongoing feud between two marmite characters on a subject that should be handled delicately at the best of times.
We’re at a stage in the sport where outlets are hungry for news, feeding off scraps on what they feel might get them a few extra clicks over their rivals. What would seem innocuous social media posts are being analysed, written about and then reanalysed as ‘real news’ dilutes, with each article seemingly more damning than the last to the athlete and their future commercial prospects. Those in combat sports do not seem to value having a strict communications strategy, much to their own downfall. At least not as much as those in professional football.
The Beautiful Game
Following the announcement in mid-March that the Premier League, Football League and WSL would all be postponed, those in search of their next footballing-fix have had to make do with archived games, FIFA tournaments and ‘Quiz Nights’ in its place.
By-and-large, football has excelled overall. Clubs like Leyton Orient and their fantastic “#UltimateQuaranTeam” tournament saw professional footballers and esports players come together to raise nearly £60k for NHS charities.
Away from the esport space, German powerhouse Borussia Dortmund have encouraged fans to play games on Instagram with club legends like Marco Reus and Marcel Schmelzer. Adidas have superbly utilised their ambassadors with the #HomeTeam movement with Nico Schulz, Paul Pogba and Edin Dzeko all being involved to carry an important message.
Premier League sides Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur have been buoyed by their offline activities, also. The Blues’ have made their Millennium Hotel at Stamford Bridge available to NHS Staff to help on commute times, whilst Spurs’ work with the Felix Project, a London-based charity that collects surplus food and redistributes it to various channels, has seen them donate over 1000 items.
It would be naive to not mention the rogue movements of a few clubs, here however. There were examples of some attempting to use the governments furlough scheme despite hefty profit margins, however the detriment to having a loyal and engaged vocal fanbase are rarely seen so clearly. The backlash so viscous that both reversed their decision over the course of a few days.
Collectively, the #PlayersTogether initiative saw a huge number of Premier League players come together to create a fund that would support the NHS Charities Together (NHSCT). Independently, the players have been exemplary too. Alongside Marcus Rashford’s charitable heroics this week, we saw how young Newcastle United midfielder Matty Longstaff was looking to donate 30% of his wages to those battling COVID-19. On a smaller scale, players like Ben Wilmot should also be championed. The England U-21 defender arranged for a FIFA tournament and giveaway competition for children who’s birthday had been effected by government regulations.
From Dana White’s audacious plans to host a fight card on a far flung island, to Billy Joe Saunders’ plethora of sins – we are yet to see similar from those in the fight game.
As happens so often in boxing, what Eddie Hearn does, many copy. His idea of having Instagram Live’s with different fighters on his roster was quite a brilliant one. It gave you an insight into a fighters home, making it more intimate, whilst highlighting a connection that truthfully it’s pretty tough for everyone at the moment. This idea has been taken by promoters and outlets at smaller levels negating the fact of why he was doing it. He has a considerable following these days, becoming a personality alongside and even sometimes above his fighters in his own right. Sadly, this is not a case for many that have performed similar social media feats. Often imitated, but rarely equalled.
Hearn can however be congratulated for donating 200 tickets to NHS staff for every remaining Matchroom show this year, it’s on a far smaller scale than what we have seen it football – yet its far, far more than we have seen from any others in his industry.
On a smaller scale to the glitz and glamour of PPV cards, promoter Stephen Goodwin has done well to keep his brand relevant by interviewing personalities from all different roles within the sport on his social channels.
Yet looking at boxers on an individual scale, out of the reputable website Boxrec’s Top 20 pound-for-pound British rankings, just under 50% have incredibly been inactive since government restrictions were placed in March. When you’re looking at a mainstream sport that pays athletes off their following, this is an incredible area to neglect.
Sam Maxwell found fame recently in national press with his mock workouts, whilst Tyson Fury proved once again that he could open an envelope and people would still flock in their masses to watch it. Other than that, the landscape looks pretty sparse.
The Last Round
With a huge amount of time being spent on social media during this period, boxers and promoters must take it upon themselves to improve their comms strategy and get ahead of their peers as lockdown lifts. Money will be tight for all, the economy could be in ruins for years, therefore those wanting potential consumers to put their hand in their pockets will need to be standout candidates.
The combat press and media are suffering as well. With no boxing taking place and little happening away from the bright lights of fight night, we are seeing outlets falling away. Boxing Monthly shut its metaphorical doors this week with many other publications crying out in their wake for content, as an athlete can you partner with a large following outlet to host workout on their channel? Can you guest write for national publication on the trials and tribulations of being a talented combat athlete, paid only when you perform, but still trying to remain fighting fit?
Promoters should look at their comms and find a way they can benefit the masses rather than exploit for their own revenue gain. Coca-Cola used their global accounts to promote the messaging of smaller health outlets, something so simple yet provides an incredible amount of sentiment from the audience in a time when everyone should be chipping in to help each other.
The world as we know has changed beyond recognition. The athletes and promoters that prosper going forward will be the ones that hold a powerful set of values and can demonstrate how they use their platforms to make a positive, sustained & impactful contribution to society. Those who don’t, not only lose out holding their current audience’s attention span or interest, but potentially future ticket purchasing fans – which could have massive long-term implications to the sport.