Sports Marketing During a Pandemic

By Robin Carr, Senior Counselor

Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently told The New York Times that he runs daily to relieve stress. However, what he really wants – like so many sports fans – is to go to a baseball game. He’s sorely missing his favorite team, the Washington Nationals.

“I don’t think there’s any place I relax more than in Nats Park, watching my now-World Champion Nats play a game,” he said. “That is a catharsis for people who have a stressful life like I do.”

Although there are clearly more important things in world than sports right now, I’ve got to agree with Dr. Fauci – I miss the games like Wimbledon, which was cancelled for the first time since World War II. We’ll also miss watching this year’s Olympic Games in Japan, which have been pushed back to July 2021.

Who won the Masters? We’ll know in November – if this rescheduled date will still apply. Somebody should have slipped into his green jacket in the Butler Cabin on Easter Sunday, but not this time. For everyone, this was an Easter like no other. It defined fractured relationships with our families, jobs, health, cultures – and our identities.

That said, one need not be a sports fan to appreciate what’s not happening. No peanuts and Cracker Jack at the ballpark, no basketball, no hockey, no Premier League, no Olympics, no racing – neither horse nor auto – no spring football…pretty much no nothing. Part of the fabric of our worldwide connectivity is missing.

So much remains at stake for things to return to “normal” anytime soon. Not only must we get the upper hand on COVID-19 so everyone can feel safe about group activities, but corporations, brands, leagues and rights-holders, must also manage significant financial risk. Sports isn’t fun and games for them, it’s business. I don’t blame them.

Sports would be a welcome distraction to all the anxiety and uncertainty in the world right now. It would give us something else to talk about, to share and to enjoy. Maybe we’ll all get our games back soon and the only mask we have to worry about for a little while is the one the catcher is wearing.

How about the bright spots? Professional baseball is being played in Taiwan and South Korea, albeit with no fans, no food and no high-fives. ESPN is airing some of these games for baseball-starved North Americans, and of course ESPN is seeing gigantic ratings from the Michael Jordan documentary, “The Last Dance.”  The big business of the NFL was on full display in April, when ABC, ESPN and the NFL Network aired the annual (but this year, virtual) 2020 Draft to record ratings. The audience was clearly starved for something sports-related in an otherwise barren sports TV landscape.

I do know first-hand about sports as a big business: I spent 18 years of my PR career in sports media relations with the San Francisco Giants, Nike and EA Sports. A lot of people are ready to get back to work, from  vendors and parking attendants to video crews and, yes, each team’s PR professionals.

Like Dr. Fauci, I’m optimistic that we will, eventually, get to use two of our favorite words again: PLAY BALL!

7 thoughts on “Sports Marketing During a Pandemic

  1. Having a collective shared experience with thousands of people you don’t know – whether it’s sports or concerts or high school graduations – is a feeling like no other. I know we all miss it and feel terribly for those directly and tangentially affected (hmmm…is cracker jack in financial trouble? what about the folks who print diplomas? ticketing companies?). My grandfather was an usher at the old Shea Stadium, former home of the NY Mets, and we counted down each year to opening day. I’m ready to hear “play ball!”

  2. Just today, the NYT ran a piece [link: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/11/sports/will-there-be-an-nfl-season.html%5D contemplating whether and how the NFL might have a fall season. It seems the most likely – and strangest – solution might be to hold games without an audience, as they’re doing in Asia. I imagine that must be strange for the players, who draw upon the energy of thousands of people to play their best games. It might, in fact, be more strange for them than for us fans, who – while we may pine for the smell of beer and garlic fries – at least know what it feels like to watch a game on TV.

  3. Hi Robin,

    Thanks for this interesting perspective on an industry that is definitely reeling from the effects of this pandemic. I’m very curious to know how this will all shake out. Perhaps you can write a follow-up blog later in the summer to let us know how things are evolving? 🙂

    – David C.

  4. Oh, how each spring I’ve always looked forward to watching a baseball game both on TV and in person as it heralds that summer is just around the corner! Never realized how I mark the passage of the seasons via sports and how I love keeping up with stats on ball players and tennis stars, specifically. I’ve never taken sports for granted and as you point out, there are so many people affected up and down the line. The sun will shine again on sports and things may have to adjust a bit but I can’t wait to revel in a game. Any game!

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