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And the Crowd Goes Quiet: How Sports Media is Responding to COVID-19

On March 11, the clock ran out on our cultural sense of normalcy. When the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic, the NBA reacted quickly, putting fan safety first by canceling the remainder of the season, and other pro sports leagues quickly followed—as did college sports. With stadiums and time slots left empty and billions of dollars in potential ad revenue lost, networks and live sports sponsors quickly pivoted.

It’s not just the revenue, though. There’s the social good that sports bring to our culture—the emphasis on leadership, quick thinking, and solidarity, and the camaraderie they create among fans. I was born into a family whose love of sports goes back generations, and that love has helped shape my personal and professional life as a senior manager of field marketing at Teads. Here are my thoughts on how sports media has responded to COVID-19, and what the future looks like.

How Sports Media Responded to Unite Fans

Within weeks of the coronavirus crisis, sports media tapped into digital and social media solutions to unite fans and generate revenue opportunities.

ESPN, FOX Sports, MLB Network, and SiriusXM fed baseball fans’ hunger for action by offering a unique alternative to MLB’s opening day, set for March 23, with “Opening Day at Home.” The full-day event encouraged fans to use the hashtag #OpeningDayAtHome, turning social media into one big ballpark. Fans were rewarded with one historically memorable game from each of the thirty MLB franchises, allowing them to relive the most pivotal moments in their lives as devoted fans.

In the college basketball world, Big Ten Network called on their Twitter followers to determine which games would be aired the following day.

The Pivot to Generate Revenue

Of course, advertisers are struggling to find reallocation opportunities that offer the same attention garnered by a live audience and the male demographic they’re less likely to reach with alternative television programming. Adweek recently reported that regular sports fans have turned to streaming binge-worthy shows to fill the void. What are advertisers to do? According to Adam Simon in Digiday, many are turning to digital video, OTT, and advanced TV to find comparable audiences.

Though some are pausing ad spending altogether, many marketers who don’t want to bench their brands are altering messaging for the current climate. Brands like Nike, State Farm and Toyota—all regular sponsors of live sports—have leaned into “stronger together” messaging, pledging commitment to their communities. Nike’s recently launched campaign implores aspiring athletes to embrace their newfound responsibility to “play inside, play for the world.” Within hours, some of the most influential athletes in the world, like Michael Jordan and Cristiano Ronaldo, were echoing Nike’s message on social media.

And Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot recently launched the “We Are Not Playing” campaign in partnership with the city’s most beloved athletes. The campaign includes billboards, ads on social media, and a PSA urging fans to continue to stay at home.

What Does the Future of Sports Media Look Like?

Between the cancellation of Upfronts—an annual event hosted by media companies to showcase their upcoming programming to media buyers—and the unprecedented standstill of live sports, the immediate future of media planning is likely to follow the same trajectory we’re seeing now, which favors short-term planning that closely monitors consumption habits as they continue to evolve day by day.

OTT, Hulu, and OnDemand programming are obvious beneficiaries of budget shifts, but gaming and esports are also seeing a surge in popularity. From March 8 to March 22, Twitch jumped from 33 million hours watched to 43 million, according to The Verge. And Sony’s “Play at Home” initiative provides free games to the PlayStation community and pledged $10 million to independent game studios. With more fans spending time indoors and searching for interaction, esports could be the “stay at home” landscape advertisers are searching for—and the place where fans can still find community.

Whether rebounding on revenue opportunities or banding together behind the pledge to maintain physical distance, the values sports have instilled in us have never been more crucial—and I’ve been heartened to see the industry’s response. Still, I look forward to the day when stadiums are full, the bases are loaded, and “Take Me Out to The Ballgame” has never sounded so sweet.


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