Survival of the fittest: enhancing the online sports event experience

By Dr. Husni Kharouf: Associate Head of School (Research) School of Marketing and Management – Research Associate Centre of Business in Society 

The events industry has been hit hard by the Covid 19 pandemic; a recent study by Eventsforce found that 72% of event organisers have had to cancel or postpone their events in the last year, with another 50% moving their events online.  In particular, sporting ‘mega events’ such as the 2020 Olympics Games have been severely affected by restrictions on large gatherings and travel.  As organisers have adapted to these restrictions, the online audience experience has become more significant. 

While pre-pandemic research has shown that enhancing the online experience of offline events can increase the overall success of the event, this can also be applied to events which do not allow in-person attendance.  While the benefits of online events include cost effectiveness, increased capacity and the scope to reach a more international audience, these are typically outweighed by the limitations such as the lack of face to face interaction and high drop-out rate leading to poorer audience engagement.  However, when run appropriately online events have the potential to be extremely successful: for example the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, while not allowing spectators into the stadium, had more than 100 million unique users visiting the Olympic digital platforms or using the Tokyo 2020 app.

Enhancing online experience

Our research collected data from four countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, Brazil and South Africa – and identified three factors that could help organisers of online events to maximise audience engagement and influence their experience more positively. These factors are effective communication, online consumer to consumer interaction, and online content engagement

Effective communication goes beyond sending an email or a social media post, requiring instead a two-way dialogue that encourages interaction between organisers and their audience.  Audience members who are happy with the communication they receive and who to feel able to engage in dialogue with the event organisers are more likely to have a positive online experience and to come to other online events in the future. 

As well as communication between organisers and audience, online consumer-to-consumer interaction between audience members helps to create a feeling of community, even if they are not meeting in person.  When attending online events, our research showed that audience members like to interact with the event and with each other, sharing stories and dramatic moments and celebrating successes.  The viral image of Tom Daley knitting in the stands at the Tokyo Olympics or the social media storm caused by Novak Djokovic’s visa troubles at the 2022 Australian Open enabled spectators around the world to engage with each other as well as with the event.  Online event organisers should create and manage a space for this interaction, as the more engaged audiences are, the more likely they are to feel positively about the event.

However, creating a Facebook group and letting consumers ‘get on with it’, or even producing content to garner ‘likes’ is not enough to maximise engagement and achieve a good online event experience.  Likes do not equal attachment or engagement – for example, recent research has found that the effect of Facebook ‘likes’ on future buying behaviour is minimal. As such, event organisers should encourage and support deeper engaging interactions with and between audience members, such as posting positive comments, sharing content and encouraging and participating in discussions.

Finally, to encourage online content engagement event organisers should produce a variety of online content for audiences to engage with, such as behind-the-scenes videos and photos of key places. This is particularly relevant to events which do not allow in-person audience attendance for which spectators may not feel much connection to the physical environments of the event. 

Running online events is challenging and difficult to adapt to, but if managed properly online events present a huge opportunity for organisers. However, a careful strategy and an understanding of the different profiles that make up the audience is needed to provide a better overall online experience.


Kharouf, H, Biscaia, R., Garcia-Perez, A., Hickman, E., (2020), Understanding Online Event Experience: The Importance of Communication, Engagement and Interaction. Journal of Business Research –  

More fans than ever connected to the Olympic Games, available at:, (accessed 10th of January 2022)

How Has Coronavirus Impacted Events? Available at:, (accessed 10th of January 2022)

Timothy J. Halloran and Richard J. Lutz (2021) Let’s Give Them Something to Talk About: Which Social Media Engagements Predict Purchase Frequency? Journal of Interactive Marketing. Volume 56, November 2021, Pages 83-95.