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The effects of unforeseen global catastrophes on sport

This is an excerpt from Sport Marketing 5th Edition With HKPropel Access by Windy Dees,Patrick Walsh,Chad D. McEvoy,Steve McKelvey,Bernard J. Mullin,Stephen Hardy & William A. Sutton.

Unforeseen Global Catastrophes

As we were writing this textbook, the world was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lives and businesses across the world had been disrupted and, in some instances, in only a matter of days. The sport world was not spared, with leagues and events around the world either being cancelled or postponed. To name just a few: The NCAA Men’s and Women’s Basketball Tournaments were cancelled; MLB and the NBA put their seasons on hold; several Formula 1 races were either cancelled or postponed; the Masters moved its tournament date from the traditional April date; EURO 2020 was postponed for a full year; the Indy 500 was not held on Memorial Day weekend for the first time since 1946; and the biggest of them all, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games did not take place as scheduled in July and August of 2020.

It is not an enjoyable exercise to plan for a potential disruption to your business and marketing activities due to something like a natural disaster, pandemic, or war, but the COVID-19 outbreak is a stark reminder that sport organizations need to have contingency plans. Leagues, events, athletes, media partners, facilities, and sponsors should all have plans in place, both contractually and hypothetically, which allow them to react quickly during an unexpected disruption.

However, to the extent that is reasonable and acceptable given the situation, it is also important to continue marketing during a crisis. There were numerous instances of sport organizations still engaging in creative and appropriate marketing activities during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing fans and consumers continuous engagement with their brands, offering fans and consumers emotional and financial support, and simply providing fans and consumers an escape and distraction from the psychological distress caused by the pandemic:

  • Many media outlets aired classic games on TV in the time slots when current games were supposed to be taking place.
  • NASCAR had their drivers compete in simulated NASCAR races through the iRacing esports racing platform and broadcast these simulations on Fox Sports.
  • Social media have been the primary tool for organizations to provide content, with many showing old highlights, providing contests for their fans, and engaging with fans and other teams in creative ways.
  • Many athletes used social media during the pandemic to provide words of support or by showcasing their personality and giving a glimpse of their home life to fans.
  • Several teams, sport organizations, athletes, and corporations donated money to various organizations or stadium workers who are now out of work due to the cancellation and postponement of events. For instance, Anheuser-Busch shifted US$5 million of its sport and entertainment sponsorship budget to relief efforts, while Nike perhaps offered one of the simplest, yet powerful statements during this time. On Twitter, Nike urged people to stay home and help stop the spread of the virus by tweeting, “If you ever dreamed of playing for millions around the world, now is your chance. Play inside, play for the world.”20

As you are reading this, you will have experienced and seen more of how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted sport than we can currently report. However, after the first few months of the pandemic, the sport industry gradually started to return to business and their respective fields of play, albeit under much different circumstances.

  • The NBA, NHL, and WNBA all returned to play and completed their seasons in what became known as “bubbles” in Orlando, Florida (NBA), Edmonton, Alberta, and Toronto, Ontario (NHL), and Bradenton, Florida (WNBA). These bubbles allowed players to be quarantined in select locations in order to limit exposure and any spread of the coronavirus.
  • MLB and the NFL started their seasons while incorporating some pauses in competition for teams that had positive COVID-19 cases.
  • Italian soccer league Serie A, one of the first professional sport leagues to stop play during the pandemic in March 2020, returned to play in June 2020.
  • Most sports events initially took place with no fans in attendance, but gradually some sports facilities allowed fans at a significantly reduced capacity to allow for social distancing. Some events even had virtual fans, while others sold cardboard cut outs of fans with their pictures on them and placed them throughout the stadium.
  • Leagues such as the NHL, NFL, and WNBA held their player drafts virtually.
  • Prominent sports licensees and leagues began to sell branded face masks and other face coverings, with some donating a portion of sales to charities. For instance, FoCo, who produces officially licensed sport products, estimates that they may sell close to US$100 million in sport licensed face coverings, and that by September 2020 they had donated nearly US$5.9 million to charities due to the sale of these new licensed products.21
  • Many sponsorship activations shifted to a virtual environment, and the industry had to be creative to offer goods for sponsors who could not activate at events. For example, some leagues and teams offered their sponsors new signage locations with corporate brands placed on tarps that were placed over sections in the facilities where fans typically sit.

These are just some examples of how the sport industry returned and how marketing continued despite the COVID-19 pandemic. However, while each situation is different, and sport organizations need to be sensitive to their current environment, it is safe to say that the sport industry, like many other industries, was caught off guard by the COVID-19 pandemic. It took a massive undertaking by sport properties, athletes, media, and corporate partners to accomplish what the industry did from a competition perspective during this time. However, this also provided a reminder that it is important for sport organizations to plan and think ahead to how they would operate and market their brands due to unforeseen cancellations or postponements.