Among the many disruptions to daily life caused by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic early last year, one of the most sharply felt in the entertainment and advertising world was the effect it had on live sports. Fans despaired at an endless onslaught of cancelled seasons, delayed and rescheduled games, missing players, and an absence of spectators at events over the course of the year. Aside from a few bright spots such as The Last Dance coming out, it was a dismal year to be following sports.
Now, finally, more than a year later, we are seeing some things get back to (nearly) normal. Sports are resuming their regular schedules; fans are once again shuffling into stadiums, albeit at a reduced capacity; restrictions within certain cities are loosening somewhat. For many, these are developments that are being watched with bated breath. Many millions of dollars in advertising, sponsorships, and ticket sales are riding on this wave of positive developments carrying through into 2021 being a great year for sports. So, what signs can we look at now that might give us an inkling as to which way the wind is blowing?
Well, a lot of the information available so far is promising. The recently held Indianapolis 500 boasted a walloping 135,000 fans in attendance this year after a delayed August race was conducted without a crowd, a feat that owed part of its possibility to a vigorous campaign of vaccination across the state and at the venue itself. Even though this represented only 40% of the capacity for the event (judged to be the safe proportion), it was still more than enough to make it the largest in-person crowd for a sporting event this year. The baseball world also geared up for a return to normal, with the Cincinnati Reds hosting a re-opening day which heralds one of the first MLB events with full crowd capacity this year. Community leaders are urging celebration and doing their best to make the event a roaring success, a recognition of everything the city has overcome during the course of the pandemic.
Fans are also going to be allowed to attend two hotly anticipated U.S. Olympic Trials this month, namely swimming and track and field. The latter will be dividing up the stadium into separate vaccinated and unvaccinated sections, with the bulk of tickets being made available to those who have gotten the jab and are able to prove it. The PGA Championship had crowd presence, as will most NBA playoff games, and only two teams in the entirety of the NFL have not been approved for full crowd capacity in the fall, with the college football scene likely to follow suit.
A clarion call for sports to come back was being sounded as early as last summer, but it met a tepid response, with those sports that did attempt a comeback generally being greatly compromised for it. It was a strange and confusing time for the entire sports ecosystem, interfering with the lives of fans, players, and sports journalists, who faced a particularly difficult time balancing the pressures of wanting a return of the events upon which their livelihoods depend with their responsibility to promote safe practices. This time, things seem different – the comeback seems more fully realized, and while there are still compromises to be made, you could be forgiven for buying into the hype at least a little.
While revenues took a hit last year, the biggest stars still managed to take home a healthy payday. A record four athletes in Forbes’ 2021 list of the most highly paid athletes made over $100 million over the past 12 months, falling just one short of the total number of athletes who hit that benchmark before this last year. These fortunate individuals are fan-favorite UFC fighter Conor McGregor, soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, and Dak Prescott of the Dallas Cowboys. Notably, a lot of that money came from off-the-field earnings in the form of sponsorships, merchandising, or revenues from businesses amidst what was otherwise a very poor year for sports revenue. However, it does go to show that despite everything, fans have stayed interested in their favorite players – there is still value in those names, and with regulations loosening this might be something organizers can capitalize on to jump-start a reinvigorated sports scene in 2021.
Overall, sports are not looking like a bad bet this year in the aftermath of the most difficult in recent memory. Based on current standings, they in fact seem set to get put back on their feet by a groundswell of fan enthusiasm. Now would be a good time to re-evaluate the role sports programming might play in current or upcoming marketing efforts, and while caution is ever a virtue, there are plenty of reasons to feel good about the future of sports.
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