Sports in the Time of COVID

By Megan Dobransky

March 5, 2021

2020 marked unprecedented changes and adaptions in everyday life, especially for sports teams and sports fans. As whole seasons were shortened or suspended, in-person attendance paused, and teams left to wonder what happens next, sports industries all over the world were thrown into the unknown. But in many ways, the show must go on. In 2020, the sports clubs that creatively embraced social media continued to engage their audiences—and those that didn’t had to catch up quickly.

North American sports social media posts in 2020

Q1: Sports Goes Social

Sports games typically drive significant social content creation, but the hiatus in Q1 had an immediate impact on overall post volume. Cross-platform posts dropped significantly in Q1 across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram as compared to Q1 the prior year. The only exception was the NFL, well into the offseason during the March sports shutdown, which saw posts increase by 3% and videos increase by 39%.

Quality ruled over quantity as sports posts volume dipped, but sports engagement skyrocketed. Premier League scored the greatest increase in engagements per post and engagements per video up 146% and 142% respectively, followed by the NBA with 119% and 126% increases respectively. The NFL ran for a more modest growth with a 37% increase in engagements per video and 9% increase in engagements per post. Notably, when totaling all engagements across all platforms for major sports leagues, Premier League ruled with more cross-platform engagements in Q1 2020 than NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, and MLS combined. In total, they command 54% of the total share of engagements.

European sports social media posts in 2020

Q2: Socializing Sports with No Sports

Without live sporting matches, practices, or even access to players, social media marketers were presented with a unique challenge in Q2. Despite this, total engagements dipped a mere 1% in Q2 2020 as compared to Q2 2019, but still showcased a stark difference from the beginning of 2020 when engagements skyrocketed for sports teams on social. Maintaining engagement was a true feat as professional sports teams grew increasingly creative on social media in order to keep content interesting during a time when most athletes were isolated in their homes.

As European leagues started their seasons and North American leagues moved forward with plans to start, a striking divergence can be seen between the social performance of professional sports in these two regions. While the teams from the European leagues posted close to the same amount of video content as they did in January, North American teams posted 66% less content in June than January and a 55% decrease from April to June.

In considering the total engagements for each team in the league through the beginning of the year, total engagements for European teams sank 20% in June compared to January. The difference was more pronounced for professional teams in North America. Total engagements from all teams decreased by 71% from January to June, suggesting that the North American teams have a lot more ground to make up than their colleagues across the pond.

A notable bright spot for North American leagues was the NFL Draft in late April. During the three-day event, NFL teams surpassed the NBA teams in total engagements for the only time during the first half of the year, despite the NFL’s January and February playoffs. From March to April, the NFL increased their total engagements by 129% during a time when all other leagues saw significant decreases.

North American and European sports social media engagement in 2020

Q3: Engaging on the Social Field

North American sports mounted a comeback on social media in Q3. In September, total engagements jumped 252% across the region’s sports leagues including the NBA, NFL, NHL, MLB, and MLS as compared to their nadir in June. While this was a marked improvement from the Q2 draught, Q3 engagements did not recover to pre-pandemic levels even with NBA, NHL, MLB, and NHL ongoing in September.

A striking divergence can be seen between the social performance of professional sports in Europe as compared to North America. European leagues reached their low point of the year in April as compared to North America’s bottom in June. While content output for the European teams dipped early, it did not decline as much as for North American leagues and therefore rebounded much faster when sports returned to the region. Ultimately, European teams were able to thrive post-shutdown because of this. In fact, Q3 delivered the best quarter of the year for European teams and showcased a 117% increase in total engagements as compared to Q2.

Q4: Reaching for a Rebound

As 2020 came to close, North American sports saw a dip in both posts and engagements in November, though not as steep as the June cliff, but ramped up again in December. Still, it wasn’t enough to reach pre-pandemic levels on either front. The NFL was rewarded with steady engagement due to its consistent content and video posting throughout Q4. The NBA posted significantly more social and video content in December, which helped boost engagement in that month higher than any other North American league. The MLB and MLS had the fewest posts in Q4 and therefore, the lowest engagement.

European sports, on the other hand, stayed rather static in both posts and engagements after their early-summer slump. Even though the major European clubs posted about the same amount of social content, the Premier League received the bulk of engagement, followed by La Liga, Serie A, and Bundesliga.

Early 2021: Mounting a Comeback

Looking at early signs from 2021, comparing January 2020 to January 2021 the number of posts in North America across all leagues looked very similar, but engagements were slightly down. Posts and engagements were up year over year for almost all the European leagues, perhaps due to their social media creativity and consistency throughout 2020.

Life is certainly not back to “normal” and neither is the sports industry, but fans all over the world can now stream live games—some even with limited live attendance—and engage with their favorite teams and players on social media, a routine comfort that seemed almost inconceivable at points last year.