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

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 another 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 III: Appreciation (& Disappointment)

TMR: What have you seen from other teams/brands/properties that has impressed you? What’s been most creative or innovative? What’s been most thoughtful or compelling?

The most frequently praised organizations are NASCAR and iRacing, followed by the NBA. The only brand called out more than once is Anheuser-Busch. One individual, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban, was lauded multiple times for his pro-fan, pro-employee stance.

Love the NASCAR virtual races with all the drivers (real drivers, retired drivers and e-drivers) all competing and it looks great on TV. -Carlos Silva, WTT

Ford voluntarily manufacturing ventilators. Mark Cuban paying all Dallas Mavericks employees. -Chris Hastings, Chicago Sport & Social

Teams taking opportunities to provide their fan base with content that has very little to do with sports and more to do with helping pass time with children. Being a parent, it was great seeing the coloring books and other activities that teams went out of their ways to provide. Also, the refocusing of brands spends related to the manufacturing and promotion of necessary products, resources and materials our healthcare front lines lack during this very scary time. -Chris Todd, YouGov Sports

Nike continues to lead…early decision making and leveraging tools to extend brand and engage consumers. -SJ Luedtke, IndyCar

Seeing a lot of properties spotlight their restaurant partners and like to see those call-outs. The branded Zoom backgrounds are cool. Smart social integrations with players are relatable. -Pro Hockey Team

Lululemon and their “community carries on” message is compelling. -Ryan Hatcher, Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, Team In Training

The ability of brands to really take care of employees. Great to see a lot of companies make this an important factor. Also interesting to see how sponsors pivot to execute sponsorship assets leveraging the current situation (BYU Athletics did a cool campaign on washing hands on social media). -Nik Lapin, Partnership Consultant

Various brands adopting quickly to focus their messaging is great to see. -Robert Teinowitz, Live Action Media

The quickness of iRacing, Fox Sports and NASCAR‘s packaging of the iRacing NASCAR Pro Series was impressive. Countless brands have done a nice job of maintaining connection with customers in a positive way, using the time to strengthen their communities. -David Paro, Deep Alliance

For more, see TMR’s story More Than Fun & Games: Sports Industry Learning from Simulations & Disruption

I think the recent ESPN PSA’s have been wonderful reminders of why we love sports. A tonic for us. The iRacing series was perfectly timed–as was the roll out of the new/old Strat-O-Matic game. -Robin Monsky, Round Robin Sports

Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers funding 2,800 part time employees during the pause in the NBA season. -TJ Nolan, NewBridge Marketing

As everyone is reeling from the effects of this pandemic, I have been inspired to see brands pivot their sports sponsorship and other resources toward COVID relief. Smart PR and the right thing to do during this unprecedented time. -Amy Littleton, KemperLesnik

The NBA has always been at the forefront of content creation and digital design. They’re doing a great job utilizing this time to share the league’s history while continuing to build the brand. Much like Netflix, which recognizes there’s more of a thirst for content than ever, NBA TV has made League Pass free — allowing any fan to access the historical content being aired on its channel. That, undoubtedly, will help scale subscribers when the pandemic ends. -Seth Gruen, Branded PR

I’ve been impressed with big brands like Fanatics and Anheuser-Busch who have pivoted into helping try to end this pandemic with their sports-related assets. -Sean Wallis, W Partners

For more, see TMR’s story Brand Reinvention & Crisis: New Winners in the Cause Marketing Game

Behind the scenes, I have appreciated how many who routinely operate as competitors have come together to share ideas, and collaborate. -Greg Hipp, Chicago Area Runners Association

The virtual races have been a good way to stay engaged, like the Backyard Ultras or the Virtual Ironman competitions. -Doug Thurston, Big Sur Marathon Foundation

Speed to market from NASCAR to move to iRacing with broadcast partners. Other leagues and motorsports properties have been much slower to capitalize. -Scott Howard, HARLON

NASCAR has been great in transitioning to virtual, but keeping the same quality of experience. -Steve Raquel, IOV Media

I’m impressed by the number of organizations and athletes that have stepped up in numerous ways (providing financial support, use of team planes/trucks/facilities, etc.) to help the medical community on the front lines or hourly stadium employees who aren’t allowed to work. I’m also impressed with brands that have found unique ways to assist in addition to providing financial support. Such as Tito’s Handmade Vodka making 24 tons of hand sanitizer and providing it for free to area police departments. -Andrew Louthain, Chicago District Golf Association

I have been impressed by team principals like Mark Cuban taking a coaching role to assist small businesses. -Michael Verlatti, ISM Connects

Making quick and prompt decisions to postpone or cancel events without needing an order from a government agency. Also, I’ve seen many companies/organizations make full and complete refunds to their attendees/participants–without them inquiring–just automatic refunds. I also appreciate the many organizations finding ways to support their staff members and seasonal staff by ensuring that they will receive salaries, even if games/events are cancelled at arenas and stadiums, before the CARES Act was even being thought up. -Mike Nishi, Chicago Event Management

I’ve been most impressed by the organizations that treat their own folks with integrity. We consistently see that the organizations that do things the right way make the best partners. -Gabe Ottolini, Block Six Analytics

I like to see the community support efforts and the creative at home TikToks teams are posting of players and mascots. -Pro Soccer Team

I can’t speak for others but I know a deposit for next years season ticket money is due. We’ve been calling our season ticket holders that have sent in checks and making sure that they are ok with us cashing their checks right now. We’ve given our customers a break in regards to the deposit due in March. -Pro Hockey Team

Simple, but effective: “Give us your name and number and we’ll put your name on our jersey for a screen saver!” -Tim Stavros, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Athletics

I enjoyed the CBS Sports TV spot which puts a human side to sports and admits that everyone is disappointed that sports aren’t played but there are bigger things at stake right now. Sports will come back and be better than ever. -Pro Baseball Team

The race teams & manufacturers I work closely with have converted their businesses to create and provide medical supplies for front line workers. Any brand that keeps their doors open to provide for the masses has been impressive–from food carry out to grocery stores there are a lot of people that have to show up and put their own health at risk. Also, all the brands and individual players that are supporting displaced staff definitely get my respect. -Motorsports agency

Marketers being opportunistic in action, not just words, are creating the most impact; only businesses with runway can even think about creating messages to gain share-of-mind during this time. Those that are will have serious momentum when things get back to some semblance of normalcy, but many businesses are in survival mode. -Ken Olsen, REV/XP

Every boutique fitness studio has been incredible in their rapid move to digital offerings. The ones that are able to survive are brands that have built lasting relationships with their customers. More than just the service, it’s been the personality and charisma of the owners and fitness instructors that have convinced customers to stay loyal during tough times. -Ryan Kim, N1 esports

It’s great to see sport leading in some ways–from the initial NBA shutdown to the NBA saying they want to be part of the solution, part of the healing, says a lot about their leadership and how clearly they see their role in all this. The best thing I have seen in this thing, however, is outside of sport. John Krasinski and his SGN (Some Good News, below) Reports are exactly what the world needs (all the time actually). But it is wonderful for those with so much talent to share that talent and bring smiles when there are not too many to go around. -Ryan Carter, RC LLC

I feel brands are stepping up with immediate philanthropy and in turn building toward long-term brand loyalty. There are lots of good examples out there of brands doing the right thing (many that TMR has covered), and I think the efforts that truly resonate with consumers are those where brands are really putting their money (and mission) where there mouth is without overt brand/product marketing. -Tom Perros, Sponsorship Consultant

Anheuser-Busch/InBev has been incredible in their ability to send the right messages via the right mediums to the right audiences while maintaining a humanness to their brands. They’ve been able to adjust quickly to changing environments (over the last several years for that matter) and help people out in real ways. They have the funding, the labor creative capital, the media capabilities, distribution system, buy-in from their system, and right leadership to hit the nail on the head repeatedly. -Ryan Peck, Transports Global

I am proud of the role sports is playing during the coronavirus global nightmare. The NBA got everyone’s attention when it shut down operations. Almost all sports followed quickly. Then the NBA, its teams, players and other leagues–especially MLB–began covering the lost wages of stadium/arena employees. Corporate American needs to follow. -Richard Lapchick, University of Central Florida DeVos Sport Business Management Program

We’ve seen extreme generosity towards the community–as well as game day staff–from a number of teams in every league. -Derrick Hall, Arizona Diamondbacks

TMR: How about most the disappointing thing you’ve seen?

In exchange for honest responses instead of an onslaught of “no comments,” anonymity was promised to all we spoke with. We break them into a few buckets: Greed, Lack of Engagement/Creativity and Tone-deaf.


Teams putting employees on furlough or having lay-offs. I think there are better ways to handle this. The ticket rep making $40K isn’t going to make or break the team’s bottom line.

I’ve yet to hear of one major sports team offering a refund to a sponsor. Not one.

It’s been really disappointing to see many sports properties owned and operated by billionaires ask their staffs, who have relatively small incomes, take significant pay cuts.

I think the Harris Blitzer decision to reduce employee pay was disappointing. While they pulled back, the damage was done and it, along with many of their peers, has shown the true nature and culture of the business. We’re being reminded that sports are a business and a business is responsible to make money. Fans rarely understand this so teams walk a fine line and that line has been severely blurred.

The most disappointing thing is how quickly some front offices and media outlets have decided to cut staff and eliminate positions. I know it’s probably a necessary evil, but it’s also very disheartening.

There have been a number of professional sports teams that have prioritized short-term profitability over long term relationships with their employees. Sports organizations pride themselves for espousing team-oriented values. To see certain teams refuse to do the minimum to protect their team members has been disappointing to see. How can they push their athletes to sacrifice for the good of many when their owners don’t do the same?

Lack of support for players by the ATP and WTA.

Lack of Engagement/Creativity

I would love to see leagues finding more ways to bring their teams together for their fans. Would love for MLB teams to stick with their schedule and somehow ‘play’ with other teams–trivia, poker, or something silly where they could participate as teams virtually and get a few good laughs and donate any proceeds to charity.

The lack of creativity in developing live content and entertainment from teams, leagues and talent when the world is craving it most. It has been disappointing to see some event organizers who have provided one-sided solutions that put themselves above their participants. These are not normal times, and organizers need to adapt to the present, and not just rest on old industry standards for cancellations. Organizers need to protect themselves, but short term thinking may result in long term loses when your participants don’t return to you next year.

I wish every sports team had more quickly turned to an esports version of their sports (where available). Like what some NBA athletes have done, I’d love to see more players playing the video game avatar version of themselves.

There are more brands and properties sitting on the sidelines than there are delivering value to their fans right now.

The major sports leagues have been very flat in content and slow to adapt.

I think overall fan engagement has been low.

The NHL has been relatively silent and hasn’t done anything creative/innovative that I can think of to date.


Brands that have attempted to operate in direct brand building ways, but come across completely tone deaf. This is not a time to brag, let your honest and give-a-shit caring come through in your works and actions. The brand will be built as a result, not the objective.

Not specific to sports, but I chafe when I see LinkedIn posts about using this crisis as a sales opportunity. I get it since so many of us are struggling with how to sell, but it comes off ham-handed and cheesy. If you’re doing to do it, maybe try a little subtlety.

What I have seen so far has been pretty standard–an empathetic response combined with trying to dig back into the archives for content. It’s hard to do much right now, as people have limited access to most foods and services, so a lot of it feels timed to remind people they exist. Much is coming off as dollars first, humanity second, however.

UFC’s decision to keep going when everyone, everywhere else was shutting down for the safety of all.

Some governmental agencies/leaders that didn’t make decisions to cancel events/gatherings until we were deeper into the crisis and still not providing further directives to events, games beyond our current stay-at-home orders, which would help organizations better prepare to cancel and postpone events now. I know it’s a fluid situation, however, I believe that some of these decisions can be made now.

How some entrants think races who were forced to cancel and not able to provide 100% refunds are cheating them from their money.

Response from our President and the White House has been awful and negatively impacted the situation. I believe it has made things much worse.

Failure of the media to spend more time covering the outstanding work that many athletes are doing in their community during the crisis.

Non-profits still making direct financial asks without a filter or overlay and relevance to the current financial environment.

To jump to…

Part I: Immediate-term Impact

Part II: Learning & Adapting

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.