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Games Paused: Navigating the Current Sports LandscapeApril 9, 2020

Diehard fans of Moscow Liga Pro table tennis, please take a bow—your time as the global sports epicenter is now. Unfortunately for everyone else, the sports we know and love are on hiatus. With most major national and international sports already suspended, the last two weeks have seen the 2020 Summer Olympics become the 2021 Summer Olympics, the cancelation of Wimbledon and the British Open and the NFL hypothesizing about playing the 2020 season in an empty biodome. From Little League to high school, college to pro, it’s one collective sports tumbleweed rolling across the globe.

COVID-19's utter dismantling of the sports calendar is shocking, but necessary, and it’s forcing leagues, teams, owners, governing bodies and bookies into wildly uncomfortable, highly visible positions: Even FIFA is considering dipping into its $2.7B cash reserve. Similarly, this upheaval has massive implications for sponsors and brands associated with sports.

As we closely follow the sports industry, speaking with our clients and deep network of relationships across leagues, teams, agents and players, we’ve identified a series of emerging industry trends and recommendations relevant to all brands associated with the world of sports:

  • Brands have an opportunity to help keep the sports industry afloat: Media and fans are holding team owners highly accountable for their decisions, publicly shaming owners who have cut salaries and laid off employees. Where owners fail, brands can step in while creating a positive publicity boost. Similarly, the already beleaguered world of sports media—particularly radio—is seeing massive cutbacks due to reductions in ad revenue—a simple way to support the industry is to keep buying ads.
  • Forget the calendar and focus on what you can do now: No one really knows when sports are coming back, and any league or team official who claims to know is probably thinking with their wallet. When sports finally do return, there will likely be a massive collision of rescheduled championships and top-tier events. Sports media and fans are starved for content, watching and ranking old games and tournaments for lack of anything better to do. Consider taking a cue from the music industry, which has leapt into at-home concerts and livestreams in lieu of public events.
  • Engage fans via creative video game partnerships and activations: Consumer friendly gaming—Animal Crossing, for example—is experiencing the beginning of a sizeable boom, which will likely drive streaming platforms (e.g. Amazon’s Twitch and YouTube Gaming) into the broader public consciousness. While esports competitions are stuck navigating the same issues of physical dependence as traditional sports (top-tier esports tournaments can’t be played digitally across different regions due to differences in internet speed), people who might otherwise not game are flocking to video games to fill the void. We’ve already seen traditional sports leagues embracing gaming with open arms—the NBA is hosting its first-ever 'NBA 2K Players Tournament' and airing it on ESPN.
  • Look for opportunities to support global efforts while anticipating the return of sports: A collection of sports brands including Nike, Under Armour and Bauer have voluntarily shifted their manufacturing lines to develop protective equipment for first responders. This effort has been well covered and rightfully lauded, but an underreported story—and an opportunity to make a positive impact—is the anticipated shortage of youth sports equipment as we emerge from COVID-19.
  • Sports gambling will strike back: After slowly winning state-by-state legalization battles over the past few years, the sports gambling world is reeling from the lack of action. People are betting on everything from video game simulations to the weather, and when sports return there will be a surge in betting.

Like many industries across the globe, the sports world is neck deep in uncharted waters. Right now, a sizeable portion of the country has more time than ever before to be connected online with a discerning eye—the stakes are high, and sports sponsors and brands must be empathetic, cautious and helpful. Above all, if a brand is producing content, striking a partnership or activating in any capacity, it’s critical to ensure its authenticity and purposefulness, whether that’s delivering for impacted communities through CSR efforts, or by filling an entertainment or informational void during these uneasy times. The sports world will eventually resume, and the energy, enthusiasm and hunger for consumption will be at an all-time high. Making the right decisions now will ensure a brand isn’t in need of a comeback when the action resumes.

By Chris Console, Senior Vice President/Senior Director, BCW Sports and Connor Mellas, Account Director, BCW Sports