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Exclusive: How Sunshine Coast Lightning Are Adapting and Innovating Amid COVID-19

O
ne year on since the COVID-19 pandemic changed the nature of Australian and international sports, organisations have been forced to adjust to new limitations.

Despite enduring less severe restrictions in Queensland compared to the rest of the world and even the rest of Australia, the Sunshine Coast Lightning have needed to adapt and innovate to succeed in this new sporting landscape.

The Sunshine Coast Lightning’s membership and ticketing executive, Tyler Kerr, and general manager of commercial, Matt Williams, spoke to Ministry Of Sport about lessons learned during the pandemic, and how they plan to grow in the commercial and membership space in the future.

Navigating COVID-19

Changes brought on by COVID-19 were immediate and season-altering for professional clubs, Kerr said, discussing how the pandemic made her and her team become instantly more flexible.

“It made us want to be more adaptive and creative, we had to look at different options, other than a typical, mundane membership that we did in the past,” Kerr told Ministry of Sport.

The Lightning’s stadium seats 3,000 fans at full capacity, and the pandemic meant that crowds were capped at 1,500.

Kerr believes they were in a lucky position, but it still was not all straightforward.

“We were still able to get all our reserve ticket seat holders in, but it made us adapt to the processes we do.

“It created a lot more work, because you effectively had to reach out to all of them, and they had to confirm their attendance,” she said.

She explained despite the extra effort, it created an extra element of engagement between the club and its fans, which was essential during the initial stages of the pandemic.

Importance of sport

According to Matt Williams, COVID-19 highlighted the value and importance of sport in Australian society.

“You think of all the things that stopped last year, and one of the things that didn’t [stop] in Australia last year was sport, it continued to be really important,” Williams told Ministry of Sport.

“Even in places like Victoria where they were in lockdown, they still found ways to make sport happen,” Williams said.

As traditional mediums for marketing become less popular, and streamable and on-demand content becomes increasingly more common, Williams believes sport is an exception.

“It’s a really solid investment for businesses looking to get exposure,” Williams said.

“Particularly when free to air TV is dropping in viewership, the one thing bucking that trend is live sport.

“For our sport, it’s about backing what we’re doing further, and engaging with our fans in a way we haven’t done in the past,” he said.

Creating digital value

With crowd restrictions in place to limit to spread of COVID-19, bringing value to fans and members outside of the stadium is more important than ever.

With this in mind, Williams explains how the Lightning is aiming to utilise digital technology to generate commercial and membership value.

“Digital wasn’t a big focus for sport heading into 2020, but it just exploded, particularly in the lockdown phase,” Williams said.

“That focus will continue to grow and create new assets, assets that haven’t been sold before.

“We’re in quite a unique situation, that we still had fans throughout our season, and with a small venue, it really drives a need to be a member,” he said.

The Sunshine Coast Lightning also have access to other avenues for fan engagement, with NRL club the Melbourne Storm playing a key role.

The reigning NRL premiers are the majority owners of the Lightning, and the clubs collaborated when the Melbourne-based side set up camp in the Sunshine Coast during last year’s COVID-affected season.

All Lightning members got access to a free ticket for the Storm’s first ‘home’ NRL game on the Sunshine Coast, providing value for both clubs.

“We’re always looking for a way to add value for our members,” Williams said.

“We’re constantly increasing the amount of digital content.

“I don’t know that anyone in Australian sports is doing digital memberships or doing it well, anyway.

“There’s always that challenge of resourcing costs versus return.

“I think for us this year the focus will be on resetting from 2020, and how we do that better from exclusive digital content for our member base,” he said.

Despite a relatively small catchment area of 300,000 residents based on the Sunshine Coast, the Lightning has an audience of 2.6 million people aware of the club, according to Williams.

He believes there are countless openings in the digital space to attract new fans, engage them with the club, and create sponsorship opportunities.

“We created some content in lockdown which is centred around local netball, and we put some of our sponsors around that,” Williams said.

“One of the things that have come from that is that it has become an asset, and has now been sold onto a new partner.

“We have 3,000 in our stadium, but 76,000 across our social channels, so when you show that to sponsors you look at the value of activating a game-day.

“I think partners are looking at that differently from how they did last year,” he said.

Looking ahead

Kerr said she is feeling optimistic heading into the 2021 Super Netball season and believes the club’s membership tally can continue to grow.

“We’re looking to push towards the 2,500 mark for 2021, and we’re currently sitting at just over 1,500,” Kerr said.

“We’re really comfortable with where we’re sitting at the moment, and we will be hoping to get a 3,000 capacity crowd as well,” she said.

The same attitude is shared by Williams, who cites the importance of Super Netball’s new broadcast deal in the growth of the sport and the club.

Super Netball signed a 5-year deal to begin in 2022, with every match to be broadcast live on Foxtel and Kayo Sports.

“I think it’s only going to get bigger,” Williams told Ministry of Sport.

“And I think this year in terms of confidence in the market, we’re in a better place membership-wise and commercially than this time in 2020.

“If you’re a business, the market is really captive.

“There’s not as much international sport, so the focus on domestic sport is going to be massive,” he said.