Pandemic forcing US major leagues to 'think outside the box'
By Simon Ward
While the staging of games behind closed doors because of the coronavirus pandemic will hit revenues, it is forcing leagues and teams to be innovative in the way content is presented, and develop new income streams, according to executives from North American sports.
The National Basketball Association, National Hockey League and Major League Soccer are leagues that are resuming or have returned at contained bubble sites, with no spectators present, while Major League Baseball and American football’s National Football League are facing the prospect of limited attendance, at best, when they get under way this year.
However, rights holders, broadcasters and sponsors are being urged to see the positives in the ‘new normal’, with opportunities to be more creative in the media coverage and engagement with viewers at home.
Al Guido, the president of the NFL’s San Francisco 49ers, believes that the Covid-19 crisis is providing further impetus for trends that were already evident, particularly in technology, and this plays into the hands of the team and their state-of-the-art Levi’s Stadium.
The 49ers emailed season ticket holders yesterday to inform them of “expected reduced capacity” for games at the stadium in the 2020 season, and saying they could defer payments for tickets to 2021 or opt for a full refund. The Kansas City Chiefs and the Baltimore Ravens have already announced similar measures.
Speaking on an online panel at the WFS Live event, Guido said: “Obviously, in the venue is going to look very different. We used to talk about customer service, now we’re talking about customer service and customer safety.
“What Covid has done is accelerate what's already been happening in our world. If you think about what technology has done to in-venue – with mobile tickets, contactless, cashless - we're already there. Those things were happening for customer service reasons, now they're happening for customer safety reasons.
“It’s not going to be an easy 2020 for any of us but my opinion is, and we’ve seen this across the globe with how much people are watching sports right now, there's going to be millions and millions more people who watch our games. We have a tremendous platform and opportunity to really change the world in a positive way coming out of Covid, and people will look for the sports and entertainment industry to really lead the way.”
Guido is also the chief executive of Elevate Sports Ventures, launched in 2018 by the 49ers and other sports and entertainment entities, to offer solutions to leagues and teams in areas such as stadium licences, premium ticketing and corporate hospitality.
While there are naturally limitations on those activities in the current climate, he believes sport needs to find a way to be inventive to make up for the lost turnover.
Guido stated: “What I would say is it's incumbent upon all of us to find new ways to get revenue to come in the books and with things that we might have thought were off the books, that we couldn’t or wouldn't touch, we need to actually start thinking about the ability to do those.
“Whether that’s new sponsorship assets that are inside television broadcasts, whether that's new distribution platforms, whether that's escape rooms, whether that's memberships… We’re all going to have to think through what the future of our revenue streams looks like.”
The NBA is set to resume its 2019-20 season, at the end of July, after a break of more than four months, with games at the bubble site of Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Florida.
Professional soccer returned this week with the MLS is Back Tournament at the same facility, while the NHL is planning to resume on 1 August, with games behind closed doors in two Canadian hub cities – Toronto and Edmonton.
With no spectators present, the NBA will be focusing its engagement on media platforms but is already well-versed in that field, and will be taking learnings from the high-profile European soccer leagues that have already resumed this summer.
Arnon de Mello, the vice-president and managing director of NBA Latin America, said: “Going into this restart of the NBA season, it’s all going to be about enhancing our broadcast experience. 99 per cent of our fans will never be able to go to a live game so we’ve tackled this issue for quite some time. This will only accelerate the movement and offer more and more options for our fans to experience the game.
“A lot of my challenges are exactly that because we don’t have regular games in our region – we have a couple of games in Mexico every year but that’s about it. We’re looking forward to this challenge. It’s not going to be easy. We have the benefit of having especially the European soccer leagues going before us so I think we’ve learned a lot from what they have done. In terms of innovation, I think that all of our fans are going to see something very special.”
With a wider variety of start times for games, the NBA sees an opportunity to connect better with its international audience, and, in partnership with its US broadcasting partners ESPN and Turner, is planning various new touches in the presentation.
De Mello said: “One of our biggest challenges was broadcasting games live in Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Now we’ll have more time slots. Games will be played in the US in early afternoon, and on prime-time in Europe where we usually only come in very late or night or in the early hours of the morning.
“This will be another thing for us to test and continue to be more of a global brand catering to those fans who are not in our time zone. With technology, we’re going to be testing a lot of new features – we’re going to have 30 cameras and different angles that nobody has ever seen.
“We will test those experiences that other leagues have had and we’ll adapt them to our reality. We have smaller arenas than American football and soccer so we think that we will be able to bring the fans closer to the action and have ways for them to participate via social media and live interactions.
“We will also have different ways of viewing and listening to the game because up until now fans have usually had one or maybe two options for watching the game and hearing one or two broadcasters. Now you’ll hear from YouTubers to influencers to experts calling the game, which will bring more options for our fans.”
Guido believes that the fallout from the pandemic will have engendered a change of mindset among players and coaches, as well as the leagues, in terms of sacrifices they are prepared to make to offer additional content to viewers.
He said: “Necessity is the mother of invention is what they say… the NFL and the NBA might be considered to be ocean tankers. They’re hard to turn around because there is so much maturity in these businesses. Maybe the fans would have had a negative reaction if you tried to change something too much.
“I think even that is evolving, and even what players might be used to or what they might have signed up to. You might see a coach who was like, ‘I’d never mic myself up’ who might now put a mic on to bring fans closer.
“We all understand that we are in the most challenging time in our world from a business and sports and economics perspective. This has hit every single one of us, and there is necessity to find new ways to engage with fans, not just get our sports back, because obviously that’s tough enough right now on the medical side where we’re all doing the best job we can."
Guido concluded: “We have no choice other than to think outside the box and I view that as a tremendous opportunity for the sports and entertainment world. Our fans are more apt, our players are more apt, our coaches are more apt, our front office is more apt to think about doing things that four months ago we would never have thought we had to do, or they would not have been on our radar because frankly our businesses weren’t impacted.
“It’s easy when everything is up and to the right. It's much harder in our current world and the push on the innovation front… may not have occurred without Covid, so I look at it as a tremendous opportunity.”