Office Hours: Marty Conway Explores How Communities are Affected by the Cancellation and Postponement of Sports

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The spread of COVID-19 immediately sparked the cancellation and postponement of all major sporting events around the world in an effort to prevent the spread of infection. In times of crisis, sports have harmonized different cultures, communities, and ethnicities. It’s more than just a game for many communities that rely on the economic boom of sports. Marty Conway, adjunct professor of sports business at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business, highlights the virus’s impact on the sports industry, including shifts in consumption.

What are the long-term ramifications of canceling or postponing professional sports?

Certain sporting events are unique in that they are tied to a specific time of the year or season, like the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s March Madness or the Masters golf tournament in April. Some events have the potential to be moved to another point in time, while others, like the NCAA tournament, cannot be changed, thus, they will not happen in 2020. There can be hundreds of millions of dollars connected to these sporting events. We are starting to see how this billion-dollar industry can have an impact on the larger economy. We are seeing a loss of revenue to participants, vendors, and host communities, and furlough or loss of jobs for employees.

How is COVID-19 affecting the global sports/events/entertainment industry?

Sports events around the world have effectively stopped for the first time since World War II. The safety of participants, staff, and fans are paramount to the leaders in the industry. Health concerns have now skyrocketed and are the priority for leaders, much in the way that safety concerns rose during 9/11. The gathering of crowds is considered universally unsafe by world leaders and medical experts in this uncharted “social distancing” environment. 

How is advertising affected due to the cancellations?

Live sports are valuable to the broadcast and media industry. Ratings from live sports are essential to keep the media industry viable to advertisers — compared to digital and social media. In 2019, sporting events accounted for 95 of the 100 highest-rated media programs. This sudden stop in the global sports industry is having a “freeze-in-place” effect on the media buying segment, and that money doesn’t transfer to other programs. The impact of COVID-19 may require brands to come up with a new playbook if they want to continue marketing sports.

During tragic events, communities have always been able to cling to sports. How do we create togetherness when our favorite professional sports are cancelled?

For the moment, all we have are the memories of our favorite sports and athletes. Media networks have been digging deep into archives to show weeks worth of classic sporting events that we all cherish. To a certain extent, we are all sharing that nostalgia. However, much like the period following the tragedies of 9/11, people will look for sports to be at the forefront in convening communities once the most dangerous periods are behind us. It is just unclear at this point when it will be safe to go back.

Do you think there will be a shift in how we consume sports moving forward?

A shift is already upon us. Historically, periods of crisis have accelerated these changes. Streaming media technologies at home or to a personal device is now essential for the consumer. In the past, those types of sports media were considered appealing to only certain segments of the population, but that has to change now that we are all at home. We are also changing the way we view our favorite athletes. Some athletes have been sending fans heartfelt messages through their social media channels or creating content from the comfort of their homes to share with a broader fanbase. On a deeper level, this digital strategy humanizes celebrity athletes, while also drawing tens of thousands of viewers.

What are the impacts on legalized sports-betting?

Legalized sports betting was just starting to spread to states beyond Nevada, but all sports around the world have stopped, with the exception of horse racing. We are seeing casinos and entertainment companies lose millions of dollars each day because people cannot bet on live sports. This not only hurts those industries, but also state revenues. It could take months before we fully understand the loss of revenue generated from taxable fees that each state draws from legal sports betting.

What about the current crisis worries you the most? Gives you the most hope?

I am mostly concerned about the negative impacts to communities that rely heavily on their sports teams and events. There are over 150 minor league baseball teams in the United States and each of those teams is prominent in that local community. Those events account for many jobs — full-time, part-time, or seasonal. That loss of opportunity and income cannot be easily replaced.  An example we could all understand is an event like the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. That community depends on those three weeks to generate revenue and opportunities.

On the flip side, even the most casual sports fan now understands in a deeper way how important sports are to our lifestyle in the United States. We self-identify through sports and athletics in a way previous generations missed out on during World War II. When sports finally return, we will hopefully take greater care of them as we have now realized they are a part of our core as a country.