Sports Embrace the Business of Clean

There was a time not too long ago where gritty and grimy made for part of the experience at sports and entertainment events.

We put up with Wrigley Field‘s cramped quarters because it was “The Friendly Confines.” We had no problem with more than 100,000 people mashed together at Michigan Stadium because that was the beauty of the shared live college experience for fans of the Maize & Blue. Coachella was a celebration of all things music, so sweating and bumping into people and shouting collectively for acts big and small was what we did.

Porta-potties (or troughs, in the case of Wrigley) were a necessity; hygiene be damned.

The “clean” guest experience has slowly evolved and new stadia were being built and others re-engineered. Then, that change was moved from snails-pace to hyper-speed when COVID-19 brought the sports and entertainment world to a grinding halt Mar 12.

American Cornhole League returned to play to empty arenas on May 15ACL

Now we are starting to see a return to events, at least on the sports side, without anyone in the building. Already, we have witnessed Australian Rules Football, PBR, UFC, WWE, Bundesliga, NASCAR, golf and even American Cornhole League.

While all sports look to return to action ASAP for a remote, global viewing audience, what about when games are no longer played “behind closed doors”?

How events will look, feel and smell when fans return, in even limited numbers, is being re-imagined with every passing day.

We can imagine the smell of stale beer and the crunch of walking on peanut shells replaced by the scent of bleach and Lysol.

All of this will take some getting used to. Much of the details on where, when and how many fans will be back in venue remain to be worked out. However, from a sales perspective, much of the impact of COVID-19 has been cast, but not without some opportunities.

“It was amazing to see in the final games before the shutdown how fast things like hand sanitizer were disappearing from the arena,” Golden State Warriors President Rick Welts told the Sports Business Journal last month. “We could not keep the containers we had out filled enough.”

The appearance of sponsored stations, from sun block in places like The Australian Open and at the Salt River Complex during MLB Spring Training with teams like the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks, to hand sanitizer drops at Chase Arena, were in many times add-ons to larger brand deals. So were things like broom sponsors on an NBA court, or janitorial services tied to a base change during MLB.

You have some forward thinking companies looking for wider engagement…particularly Jani-King and Libman. Jani-King has long worked with NASCAR tracks and teams, college athletic departments, MiLB teams and some pro teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Buffalo Bills. Libman is active in NASCAR in a co-op deal with Menard’s and most widely in college and pro basketball.

However, the “cleanliness” or “cleaning” category has pretty much been an afterthought.

No more.

Venue leaders like Oak View Group and Legends have announced new divisions that will target fan experience from a cleanliness standpoint, and those in the sales industry with teams, leagues and even media companies, are fast ramping up efforts to identify those who can be both first and large movers in a space that went from largely silent to top priority for consumers.

Mike Golub, President, Business, for the MLS Timbers and NWSL Thorns, told students last month during a Zoom chat for the Future Sports Business Leaders group, that cleanliness and well-being for anyone coming into the building was now priority one.

“We will do whatever it takes to make sure that fans, when they do come back, don’t just feel safe and protected, but they are safe and protected,” Golub explained. “If it means passing out hand sanitizer, we will do that. If someone feels like they can’t come because they have an issue or are in a targeted demo for the disease, we return their money. If people have questions when they come in, we will provide answers and messaging, this is priority one.”

Can you sell clean?

There has to be a balance, of course, but for revenue add in a business that has lost millions, selling the experience and the brands tied in will be a new hurdle to climb. However, the shrewd and strategic events and teams will be able to breakdown the categories, much like we have seen them work through the complexities of financial institutions.

Years ago a team, or a league or an event might have an “Official Bank.” Today, the “bank” category is bisected into financial services, estate planning, wealth management, online banking, checking, credit card, debit card, etc. All categories that were not part of the original idea.

The same may be said for the cleaning category: what was once an add-on can now become official hand sanitizer, custom mops and brooms, official air spray, official hand wipes, official cleansing drone…with all the signage and creativity that can come with giveaways.

The cleaning of the arena floor during timeouts, the sweeping of the bases in baseball, the scraping of the ice…all now take on added focus, and while some were sponsored before, can probably bring more attention, more educational messaging, and more value.

Then you have personal protection equipment, or PPE, as pandemic news coverage has forever burned into our brains.

A few weeks ago, leagues were aghast that companies were selling unlicensed masks complete with logos…until licensing deals were worked out. Now you can buy a mask with your favorite team on it from seemingly every online store in existence. The same may be true for gloves–especially the tens of millions of pairs which will be worn by stadium workers.

Sponsored masks and gloves could be a tough pitch at face value. But think about tying them to a brand looking for cause marketing…BOOM! A program that is a great win for both sides.

Now you can buy any team mask you want. Who will be first to sell this sponsorable asset?

Another great opportunity exists on the community side to design masks for both sale and promotion, then auctioned off for cause down the line as well. Certainly precautions will have to be taken to avoid any kind of transmission, but the masks, here to stay (for the foreseeable future, at least), have become part of the brand package, especially in the healthcare world.

“There were categories that were just basic business-to-business categories for years with teams and colleges–these essentially were ‘business back’ deals where the team received some percentage of their cost of services bought back from the ‘sponsor,’” explains veteran sports marketer Ray Katz, a professor at Columbia University and COO at Collegiate Sports Management Group. “For example, ‘you do our janitorial services, we will make you the official cleaning supplier or partner.’ Now those health, hygiene and cleanliness brands are irrevocably essential and can be reinforced by proactive and creative selling in categories that can be split up like some smart teams and organizations have done with financial services for several years. They will be selling opportunities as always, but more importantly they will be using their IP to overtly, or implicitly, imply best practices and services. Reassurance of safety is absolutely critical to college and pro sports venue business success at this point in time and most likely for some time to come.”

That time has already begun in earnest, and as teams and leagues seek to recoup massive sports hiatus losses, new revenue streams are going to be key; especially a “clean” one that was an afterthought just a few months ago.