OPINION: Changing the Game – COVID-19 Impact on Industry Expectations

14 Jul 2020

Michael Bapis, MD of Vios Advisors at Rockefeller Capital Management, explores how COVID-19 has fundamentally changed expectations across the sports industry, but also what has remained intact.

During this strange yet unique time in our world due to COVID-19, we have been faced with the difficult challenge adapting to a lifestyle focused on simplicity, without in-person interaction, our favorite restaurants, religious ceremonies, large gatherings and concerts, and most importantly, without sports. As the summer months approach we cannot help but to feel the void that professional athletics has left on our nation, and world, in the past few months.

The initial announcement that shocked the sports industry came from the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. There is something truly special that happens during the Olympic Games. Although we spend the duration of the events rooting for our favourite country, the real magic of the Olympic Games lies well above and beyond the individual superstars and powerhouse countries. The Olympic Games are tremendously uplifting and inspirational. However, this year, they are just postponed.

Postponements and cancellations have been the name of the game as the relentless coronavirus continues to dominate headlines and add in an additional layer and complexity and uneasiness for many athletes across the world in determining the longevity of their careers and pursuing their passions amid a world of uncertainty and fear. As the coronavirus has shifted the way in which professional athletics will occur, sports are beginning to make a comeback as the pandemic has forced leagues and schools to adapt to new safety measures, which are first and foremost, and without fans in the stands.

On the bright side, there is light at the end of the tunnel for several professional sports leagues that have begun the road to recovery and are resuming or beginning seasons this summer, including the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, and the English Premier League. Even without fans present, soccer has never been more competitive. It is evident to see that, no matter what the sport is and how shortened the season may be, professional athletes across the nation and world still see plenty of value in winning their respective championships.

The season’s restart for the NBA is uplifting news for the league, but with the on-court action pushed back well beyond its usual timeline, the impact of postponing the season now influences future events for the professional athletes, including the NBA Draft Lottery, the Draft itself, and the overall concept of free agency.

On a more detrimental and unfortunate note, the shortened and revised seasons will have a major trickle-down effect, impacting employees, fans, bars, restaurants, security, and concessions, as the whole perspective of the future of a sporting event is being redefined before our eyes.

How so? There are a myriad of individuals whose collaborative efforts help to make a sporting event a truly unforgettable, seamless, and fun experience for the fans, from the transportation to the event, ambiance and concessions at the event, to the superstars in the spotlight at each event. With sporting events resuming currently without fans, many essential individuals are left without employment, and gate revenue in many cases is fundamentally non-existent.

The extreme drop in profits at sporting events once they resume will be difficult to replace in the fan-less model, leaving pro sports leagues with the challenging task of finding the most efficient and effective ways to generate revenue until restrictions are eased and fans slowly begin return to these events in meaningful numbers.

Overall, the uncertainty continues to linger and the overhanging fear of the virus may deter fans from ever returning to their favourite sports events, which could impose an incredible challenge for the sports industry as we move forward this year and beyond.

For the athletes, the timelines of revised seasons leave athletes in a stressful situation as well. For the NBA this year, the timeline between the NBA Draft in October and free agency is now a mere two days, leaving little-to-no turnaround time to have athletes prepare and get their affairs in order, especially if they are still in Orlando, Florida, during the play-offs. As it is for all of us, the situation is ever-evolving and all they can do now is to try their best to plan ahead and remain flexible, as the calendar quickly turns to the start of the 2020-21 season in December.

Even more so, at the forefront of frustration, are athletes in properties such as Minor League Baseball who just recently received the long-expected news that their entire 2020 season has been cancelled. As anger and anxiety build and off-season uncertainty loiters, these athletes and the league will be forced to make the most of what they currently have and hope for a quick return to normalcy to help guide future careers. Across the board in the sports industry, there are many athletes that are ultimately trying to make it in their specific sport, as they know the lifespan of their career can be a short window of success. At the peak of their games, this is their time to shine as career longevity is always uncertain.

We are ultimately all facing a new reality that will now be easy. There is a lot of need in our country and world right now. Philanthropy and advocacy are two advantageous opportunities for athletes who have a marketing and branding platform to represent the most vulnerable and affected populations.

As pro athlete contracts and compensation have been impacted across the world, it has not been an easy road to travel during these trying times. We look to pro athletes for inspiration, guidance, and support, and we have seen endless examples of their light shining bright by their generous contributions despite changes in their own lives for the betterment of the world.

Sports have always been classified as a global unifier. Race, gender, religion, and socioeconomic status are all unimportant when fans come together to celebrate the result of a competition. Going back to the Olympic Games, there are so many aspects of events such as these that teach us imperative values such as excellence, respect, and unity that we can bring in our own personal lives and journeys.

Although the challenges persist, the Olympic Games will always embody passion, love, and peace – all ideals that we need during this time in our world. As Nelson Mandela said: “Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

We are all in this together – one spirit and one purpose.

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