Survey Says: COVID-19’s SportsBiz Impact — Part II

As we rolled into Apr and closed in on a month of work from home mandates, TMR looked to get a read on where teams, leagues, venues, properties and agencies stood.

I pushed out an informal survey using a handful of questions to a range of folks from my network. Making sure to reach coast-to-coast, with sales account execs and sports management professors, team presidents and league CEOs, we spoke with dozens of sportsbiz professionals and we had nearly 50 people respond in writing.

Those who responded in writing answered two poll questions (results below):

  • Do you expect game costs–tickets, concessions, merchandise (i.e., Fan Cost Index elements) to…Increase, Remain flat, Decrease or Not sure?
  • When do you estimate you will be able to resume “normal” activities and interactions with staff and fans?

Over our four-part series, we summarize responses and highlight quotes of particular interest in four groups:

  • Part I: Immediate-term impact
    • Are/will you be furloughing or laying off staff?
    • How are you communicating?
  • Part II: Learning & Adapting
    • What is your biggest learning thus far?
    • What’s the biggest change to come out on the other side?
  • Part III: Appreciation (& Disappointment)
    • Who has impressed you?
    • Who has disappointed you?
  • Part IV: Staying fancentric
    • How are you staying fancentric?

This survey includes mid- to C-level execs working in amateur golf, esports, marathons, Olympics/Paralympics, tennis and professional teams across leagues such as AHL, MiLB, MLB, MLS, NBA and the NHL, including an ownership group holding several large market venues and teams. Also represented are non-profits, sports management professors, financial institutions, logistics, gifting, arena displays and numerous agencies (creative, experiential, PR and sales).

Respondents were granted anonymity when requested in exchange for their honesty, as not all are “official” spokespeople or the information is sensitive in nature.

That said, we are not claiming this is a scientific, perfect representation of our industry, rather it’s an attempt to share some insights and spark discussion.

Part II: Learning & Adapting

TMR: What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned over the past 3 weeks?

As a leader, in times of crisis like this, you do your best work when you put human needs before business needs. -Ryan Hatcher, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Team In Training

Recent weeks have amplified the need to be prepared for anything, to have crisis communications plans in place in advance, and to act decisively when the time comes to act. The unknown causes anxiety. Participants want solutions immediately. We have to be ready to serve them on their timeline in order to keep their confidence. -Greg Hipp, Chicago Area Runners Association

At their core people are very resilient and have an amazing ability to adapt when absolutely necessary. -Gabe Ottolini, Block Six Analytics

Have to be flexible and look for new ways to deliver opportunities. -Jeannie Goldstein, Chicago Sports Partners

Good reminder that family and friends are important, and we need to remember that the prospects we’re pursuing are going through similar challenges so business needs to take a backseat for a little while. -Pro SoccerTeam

People are more creative than they think when shaken out of the daily routine. -Ken Olsen, REV/XP

Everyone needs some direction on how to look and sound more professional on video meetings. -Steve Johnson, SJ Connects

More confirmed, but 1) live sports are indeed important; 2) we can officially put to bed that we need to be together, in person, to be productive; 3) business software is not entirely evil. -David Paro, Deep Alliance

To me, it’s how much fans desire live sports programming. -Derrick Hall, Arizona Diamondbacks

Communication (early, often and clear) is essential to crisis periods. -SJ Luedtke, IndyCar

All we can do is prepare as we don’t really know what is going to happen. -Carlos Silva, WTT

The importance of pivoting when faced with circumstances beyond your control–both in business and in life. -Kevin Adler, Engage Marketing

The importance of keeping things in perspective; our events are optional “play” activities, very important to life balance and enjoyment, but not as important as health and safety. -Doug Thurston, Big Sur Marathon Foundation

Change isn’t as tough as you think it is. We designed our entire product around in-person interaction and experience within a physical space. We had always looked at digitalization of our offerings as a long-term goal and the work involved served as a deterrent for getting things underway. Suddenly, a global pandemic drove us to online classes and bootcamps for our esports gym. The change was not as tough or tedious as we thought it would be. The caveat is obviously that we were lucky enough to belong in a sector that already had robust infrastructure for a digital transformation, something that most brick & mortar businesses do not have access to. -Ryan Kim, N1 esports

Remain true to our business strategy and vision. Be patient but decisive. The world changed so quickly that we have been forced to adapt for our survival while considering many outside factors and strategies for our business in a very short amount of time. While fluidity and uncertainty reigned, we also needed to breathe, take account of our positions, and remain true to our brand promise. -Ryan Peck, Transports Global

There is no magic formula for what will be successful as a sports property 24 hours from now. One minute mainstream stick and ball sports are thriving, and the next day brand strategies shift to esports and personal fitness. -Scott Howard, HARLON

How many organizations are struggling to restructure the way they interact with their stakeholders. -Roy Kessel, Sports Philanthropy Network

Learned? I’ve learned a lot over the past three weeks. But what’s most significantly on my mind is something I’ve always known–it just smacked me in the face when this all began. That’s the unrelenting requirement that businesses constantly innovate. As a communications agency, we’ve had to innovate and rethink our approach to external communications because everything–rightfully so–is about coronavirus. So we have to think about business with that backdrop in mind. -Seth Gruen, Branded PR

That even when business ‘is not good’ there’s still plenty to do. To learn by watching and reading about what others are doing and are up against. To think about what really has worked and hasn’t worked well in the past so you can plan how to proceed in the future. To reconnect with people you haven’t talked to in a while and make new connections. To be supportive of and commiserate with others on what they are facing, because you never know where the next opportunity will come from. -Robin Monsky, Round Robin Sports

One day at a time. I’m continually surprised by what I thought would happen and for how long. So I’ve stopped spending time estimating and tried to focus on each day on the right here, right now. -TJ Nolan, NewBridge Marketing

These past few weeks have reminded me just how awesome our medical professionals are, how strong and supportive our communities can be and how fortunate and blessed we are to do what we do and live where we live. -Andrew Louthain, Chicago District Golf Association

To provide clear, concise and accurate information to our employees and stakeholders, especially when making decisions. Only offer vetted information, details from credible sources and be very wary of information that you hear from various sources, especially through social media. There’s so much bad information and even within our organization, where people are speculating and making assumptions based on what they are hearing. -Mike Nishi, Chicago Event Management

On a personal level, I’ve learned to balance work and personal life a little better. Also, sports allow people to escape from everyday issues and now that sports are gone, a lot of people realize how much they use it to connect with others. -Pro Hockey Team

Never take your health for granted nor the ability to move about our country freely. All of those things you find yourself wanting to do on a daily basis, you could’ve done any time. If you’re lucky enough to make it out of this pandemic physically and emotionally in tact, make a promise to yourself to act on those things you missed most. -Chris Todd, YouGov Sport

Pandemics can bring the world to a screeching halt. Never in all my years thought I’d see a situation where the capitalist machine would come to a near complete stop. Unprecedented and terrifying. Amazing to see how quickly sports wiped the slate clean thanks to the new reality. Astounding to see this many days in a row without any type of sports. -Matt Gamewell, Anaheim Ducks

It’s more important than ever to be flexible and agile and ready to pivot what you have into something that is both relevant to the current situation, but also empathetic and hitting the right note. -Financial institution

The human spirit is truly impressive when the situation calls for it. The impacts of this outbreak are far reaching and will be felt for a long time, people are going to need support and will hopefully have developed a much larger network to lean on than ever before. -Agency

The ecosystem of sports–and the rest of our society–is fragile. From a business POV, brands, athletes, leagues all have to find new ways to connect with their fans…the first thing they have to do is step up and care. Some brands and athletes have done just that and they are the inspirational brands we would expect nothing less from. -Consultancy

How much content live sports creates. It has been missed in so many areas–news, social media, my classroom, etc. -Jason Rice, North Central College

We as individuals are woefully unprepared, not just for the physical and social challenges that come with social distancing, but just as much (if not more) the psychological preparation that comes with this isolation and uncertainty. Sports will come back. Events will come back. But the way we as individuals and professionals come out of this on the other side (our “new normal”) will be fascinating to observe. -Tom Perros, Sponsorship Consultant

We learned that we have some amazing employees. It’s been a very humbling experience for the leadership team. Our team has stepped up in big ways, and sacrificed for each other and the greater good. -Michael Myers, BirdieBox

You’re not the only one going through this challenging time. Everyone in the industry is being impacted. It’s important to keep telling yourself things will eventually get better and back to normal. -Jon Gluskin, Branded PR

An industry that seemingly was getting stronger and stronger could come to such a halt. Never imagined what we’re seeing now was possible. -Sean Wallis, W Partners

TMR: What is the biggest change to your business coming out of this “sports hiatus”?

A new found appreciation for grabbing a Starbucks and going into the office. -Amy Littleton, LemperLesnik

That you always need to be prepared for the unexpected, and that social and connecting with fans will be more critical than ever. I think our smaller stadium approach to sports will fit the post-virus time well. -Carlos Silva, WTT

People are looking at esports/gaming as more than a buzzword! There’s much that marketers can learn from gaming and stream culture but the goal should not be to simply appropriate the platforms to meet any target demo. -Ken Olsen, REV/XP

We’re in revenue preservation mode instead of revenue generating stage. -Pro Baseball Team

Adjusting my counsel and media coaching programming to remain effective through more filters. -Steve Johnson, SJ Connects

Health security. It will be the single most talked about thing in the world and given sports and entertainment and events bring large groups of people together socially, the most polarizing as far as executional strategies. What are you doing to ensure my health safety? -Ryan Peck, Transports Global

Renewals will be a challenge with clients who already had reservations about continuing. This could be a death knell for some partnerships. Both new business and renewals will be more challenging with the built-in excuse of this situation for budget cuts, risk aversion, etc. -Pro Hockey Team

Unknown if runners will return to a rescheduled event this fall or enter one of our regularly-scheduled events when things are so uncertain. -Doug Thurston, Big Sur Marathon Foundation

We have not stopped working through all of this. A lot of rescheduling due to the Olympic and Paralympic Games postponements. We have also rescheduled in person speaking engagements and are working hard to pivot that business to online speeches. -Jeannie Goldstein, Chicago Sports Partners

This gives us an opportunity to try out rules changes in an environment where they are more easily accepted by players, owners and fans. -Derrick Hall, Arizona Diamondbacks

Focus will be much more on virtual engagement. Properties may have to adapt to a new normal of less dense crowds and a concept I believe will emerge that I call “confine within crowds” where we will inherently want to limit the number of close interactions during events. This will mean opportunity for a new type of service onsite. -David Paro, Deep Alliance

For more on the above, see David’s related contribution, TMR POV: Time to Step on the Fan Engagement Pedal

Biggest change may be how people interact and engage in a live setting going forward. As experience builders we have to continue pushing technology into our spaces even though there is no substitute for a human interaction at retail to make the sale. Virtual trainings, building up the resources and curriculum to not only reach and teach virtually, but connect as well! -Ryan Carter, RC LLC

We are witnessing the business world seeking to create the feeling of experience, when no event may be taking place, in this case, out of necessity. But I just have a sense that this will continue, when things begin to normalize. It’s shone a light on the necessity and the importance of connection, and how we can create it to be an experience in an of itself. I don’t think that fades. When this is over, I think this recognition of the value of true connection, will be more prevalent in the business community, and I think this will be something we help many sports-related–and from what we’re seeing, many non-sports-related–businesses facilitate. -Michael Myers, BirdieBox

The brands and properties that “get it right” will serve as case studies for how everyone else can and should pivot in the future. And really big picture, this is no different than any other scenario in the simple sense that every engagement strategy (regardless of the external circumstances) should start with “what do our consumers want / need from us right now and how can we deliver value to them / make their lives better?” -Kevin Adler, Engage Marketing

See Kevin’s related contribution for more–TMR POV: Now More Than Ever, Fans Need to Hear from Their Favorite Brands (a.k.a. YOU)

There’s a silver lining in everything and I think anyone in the agency world will become more dynamic strategically. Particularly in sports, those who operate in the industry have been challenged truly, by the prior question regarding remaining fancentric. If we understand that fandom doesn’t stop, we all have to ask ourselves what parts of fandom are underscored the most during this time? Those answers will be applicable even after the pandemic ends. We’re in the era of mass content–and strategies developed now will only provide more opportunity later. -Seth Gruen, Branded PR

For us it will be interesting to see consumer habits around mass participation events as that’s where we raise our dollars in the Team In Training campaign. -Ryan Hatcher, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Team In Training

Delayed projects and we’ll see about payment turnaround. That and conferences being cancelled. -Robert Teinowitz, Live Action Media

I think it’s 2 part: 1) Going to be very tough for brands to commit to 10+ year naming-rights like level partnerships–think terms may have to be adjusted in length in the near future; 2) Properties are going to be much more open to finding creative new revenue streams through partnerships given the hurting they are currently going through. -Sponsorship Consultancy

Adapting to the market. We’re using this time to do a lot of research and just connect and see how we can help. We think that sports will come back with a vengeance come this Fall (along with events) so we plan to stay ahead of partners needs to prepare for that. I think the learning is to diversify your offerings as when A, D, F aren’t an option you better have a B, C and E. -TJ Nolan, NewBridge Marketing

This reinforces the importance of building a cash reserve. Having that available during a crisis is one of the best investments an organization can make. –Greg Hipp, Chicago Area Runners Association

Right now, we’re business as usual. If this hiatus continues on throughout the summer, then things could change. -Membership Organization

From a financial aspect, depleting many of our resources and reserves in order to keep our staff employed and benefits flowing. Also, we know that there will be a lot of additional work that will need to be done when reviewing our vendor/partner agreements; especially when it comes to payment terms, waivers, insurance coverage, etc. –Mike Nishi, Chicago Event Management

Figuring out how many games will be missed, what make-goods we need to deliver to partners, and the increased challenges our sales team will see in the marketplace due to unstable economic times for brands we are/have been pursuing. -Pro Baseball Team

Seeing as we are still in it and I don’t have a lot of access to other departments I’m not sure what is going to change. It should be our dependence on ticket revenue. -Pro Hockey Team

The ways in which we pitch the media are obviously fundamentally changing since there are no games being played. We’re having to be very creatively and think way out of the box. -Jon Gluskin, Branded PR

More scrutiny is being placed on research investments so finding there are a lot more hoops to jump through at this time in order to bring clients on. Just a little more work is needed in the sales process in order to bring clients on board and get them started in our client onboarding. -Chris Todd, YouGov Sports

I think it’ll take a long time to get back to normal. Just as challenging as this time will be the march back up the mountain to where we were and how we navigate that period as well. -Financial Institution

We are actively working to identify new opportunities and how we can help define the “new normal” that extends from how brands activate during this unique time to how they will bounce back after the restrictions loosen up and people are allowed out of their homes. We are doing this with less staff, less budget and a wide range of subject matter expertise. It’s definitely improved collaboration and I think we’ll be much stronger coming out of this. -Sports Agency

A decision that I will seek more retainer clients than project clients to try to protect against this kind of shutdown again. Have always liked jumping from project to project but in this day and time, that’s a precarious spot to be. -Robin Monsky, Round Robin Sports

Like most, I’m finding difficulty in beginning new substantive conversations while also respectfully trying to continue ongoing conversations–with everyone’s shifting priorities–without seeming too pushy. -Sponsorship Consultancy

Many organizations are understandably in “pause” mode relative to new sponsorship initiatives at this time. We’re excited for folks ramping things back up as we adjust to the new normal here for the next bit. -Gabe Ottolini, Block Six Analytics

I do think in the end, the demand will be bigger than ever and the sports world will see tremendous amount of exposure. -Nik Lapin, Partnership Consultant

While I appreciate the general optimism about how and when we collectively get through this rough patch–and no doubt, how sports/entertainment will come back roaring at some point–I’m not sure many individuals in the industry truly grasp the gravity of what we’re dealing with and the implications on our industry. No one knows how this shakes out, but I feel some aren’t taking the long view of systemic changes we might see. The only thing that is certain is that things will absolutely never go completely back to how we knew them. -Tom Perros, Sponsorship Consultant

Student internships! -Jason Rice, North Central College

To jump to…

Part I: Immediate-term Impact

Part III: Appreciation (& Disappointment)

Part IV: Staying Fancentric

Chris brings deep sports business experience to his role as publisher of TMR. He first put his sales, experiential marketing, PR, sales and valuation skills to work in sporting goods retail in 1986. He has since worked for brands and agencies across all major league sports, plus golf, college athletics, marathons and motorsports. Chris is also the proud founder of Painless Networking.