After a long period of intense disruption, fans, athletes, organizations, and advertisers alike are pondering the same question: when will sports return, and how will the sports themselves and the advertising landscape that surrounds and supports them be different when they do?
What does reopening sports look like?
It’s a big “what if” to contend with because it’s a fluid situation that has yet to be contained. The impact is going to be felt across the board, with advertisers on the front line. The strong, mutually beneficial connection between sports and advertising is suddenly vulnerable. Identifying the weak points, as well as focusing on what opportunities may be created out of the chaos will be the hottest topic in sports for the coming months. What does the sports ecosystem look like right now? The answers vary from sport to sport, with a few sports thus far having been able to progress as planned. The NFL for example, is still planning on beginning its regular season on September 10th; a date far enough in the future to contemplate a return to almost normal. For the moment, this league is projecting the most positive outlook and working to keep dialogue about the possibility of rescheduling or postponing as low-key as possible. The mainstays of combat sports, MMA and boxing, are also operating more or less as planned, albeit with some additional safety precautions.
It’s another story for the majority of sports who have undergone some form of scheduling disruption. While some appear to have now successfully rescheduled with projected return dates, there are also those sports that we may not see back for a while. In the tennis world, some organizations have pushed their schedules back later into the year, while others, like the US Open which was already scheduled at the end of August, have kept to their original schedules. The NBA will be returning at the end of July, and the PGA has returned, but with many of its tournaments rescheduled for later in the year. Beyond those horizons, there is even greater uncertainty as to what the future holds. The NHL, as well as the World Series of Poker, are currently postponed indefinitely, with no word on a return date.
Fan and Athlete Experience Changing
There’s a lot of ambiguity around what happens next, but without a doubt, many sports will have new provisions in place, and the overall fabric of athletics in the country will be fundamentally changed. Particularly at the high school level, there is a rocky future ahead at the start of the 2020-2021 school year. Many authorities within schools are skeptical of any kind of return to pre-crisis normalcy in instruction and extra-curriculars full-stop. Such an interruption at the high school level may have runoff effects on sports in the next handful of years, as prospects that should have been developing in high school or collegiate teams are forced to take time away from competition.
Where advertisers fit into this muddled picture coming back from the pandemic pause depends on their media strategies and where in the sports/advertising ecosystem they are positioned. Companies with heavy investment in sports, including titans like Comcast, Disney, and AT&T are likely to realize major hits from a lack of advertising dollars being directed towards sporting events. Total estimated losses of ad revenue for these companies alone easily amount to billions, even for just a few cancelled events. While currently many sports are set to return on different schedules, in reality it’s anyone’s guess. For their part, networks have taken a variety of approaches to coming up with programming in the absence of live events and the accompanying microcosm of game related segments and punditry.
CBS, in an attempt to deal with the catastrophic cancelling of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament and associated March Madness advertising bonanza, elected to air a number of classic NCAA Tournament games over the course of two weekends back in March. At the onset of the disruption, ESPN has employed its own strategies for staying relevant, ranging from beefing up its familiar supplemental programming like analysis segments, talk shows, sports movies and documentaries, sports news, and showings of old events. They mined the archives hard, bringing back the quirky programming of ESPN8: The Ocho, which featured events like marble racing and cherry pit spitting. A seriously positive development for the venerable sports network was the airing of their ‘The Last Dance’ documentary series, made about legendary basketball star Michael Jordan. This play was a massive success and breathed some much needed life into the network’s ratings.
Covid leading to increases in digital impressions
While the worst of the lull in athletic events appears to be wrapping up, it is clear that the situation remains uneasy for advertisers. The lack of eyeballs and consequent advertising revenue apocalypse may have a knock-on effect on other forms of programming, not just sports, as without the draw of sports, many households may consider axing their pricey cable subscription altogether. Where then does an enterprising and determined advertiser look to find an audience? Sometimes when one door closes another opens and one possible effect of the dearth of sports is that the shift to digital might gain even more momentum, or connected TV and OTT advertising might gain a leg up over traditional cable as advertisers look for alternative solutions.
It may be a somewhat disorienting pivot, but If this approach works out for advertisers, they may retain their new strategic positions and media mix even after a return to normalcy. Traditional media will take some hits, but is unlikely to be undone by the disruption in sports media. For motivated marketers, the new normal may shine some light into advertising opportunities and new audiences that have been previously overshadowed by the gravitational pull of big sports events. Who doesn’t love a powerful reverse? Having winning advertising strategies in what’s left of 2020 will come from working with a field-level team who knows the media plays that work.
If you want to advertise during sporting or other events, contact us today.