Are we headed for a sports BOOM….then BUST?

There are cycles in almost everything in life. Nothing ever grows exponentially forever.

This can be seen in nature, our economy, and countless other places in our lives. No bull market lasts forever. No Bear market does either.

How you navigate those peaks and valleys comes down to how well you understand the factors that affect the system your industry is running on. What are the levers that increase success or drive failure?

If we can understand the system and levers, we can effectively navigate to success where others fail. We see it time & time again with companies in the market.

The sports industry is no different. We have very clear dynamics that affect attendance in our industry. Many times, we found band-aid solutions to cover them up. And somewhat..they worked.

But before the pandemic, sports had an issue with getting fans into the stands. We heard it non-stop, fans enjoyed watching at home.

We had prominent sports figures complain that the Smart Phone was the enemy, giving people access to sports content so they would stay home.

We saw 10%+ drops in attendance each year. This was a HUGE issue in sports. Then a pandemic came our attendance went to 0. We had to get creative in keeping fans engaged, connected, and ultimately monetize them without live games.

As an industry, we did an awesome job of being creative to solve these issues. But, we may have only ignited a larger issue.

Today I want to jump into some factors that concern me for sports. I believe in asking ourselves the hard questions in order to create tangible solutions to solve them. This is the first step to that.

The BOOM

Look, live sports being back in our stadiums will bring a boom. Many of you, in fact, are selling on this in with your clients.

I’m sure everyone in the sponsorship industry reading this article has used the line “When we do get sports back in our stadiums, the viewership will be astronomical. You will not want to miss out on that when it happens.”

I do think there will be a boom. If we look at the return of people to restaurants and bars in states where they are opening up, there is a pretty steady return. Here in Portland, OR some restaurants have a line to eat when pre-pandemic you maybe saw a handful of people there.

I am, though, skeptical on how big of a BOOM we will see. We haven’t seen the BOOM we expected on television ratings for watching key games in the playoffs for many leagues. You can mark it up to not counting streaming as well as they should and an oversaturation of all the sports happening at once.

It is important, unequivocally, to maximize whatever boom you see and be prepared. Have a plan for it and make sure you are maximizing it. You will need the cash from this boom to capitalize on the bust that I believe will follow.

The Bust

As with any boom, there is a carrying capacity for that upward trajectory. There are factors that will begin to eat away at that rise if not seen and understood properly.

I see three main factors we have to take into account as we look to navigate the next 5 years (and honestly 5 months) that will drop our attendance numbers.

The battle pre-covid for attendance wasn’t won

It is VITAL to understand that our problems of the past have not gone away. We were, for the most part, losing the attendance battle at our games.

Most of us in the industry don’t need proof of this as we lived this problem, but to put into context here is a quote from a 2019 USA Today article:

“But fans are now less inclined to go to games in person. Each league saw a decline in total attendance from 2008 to 2018. Fans are often unwilling to pay high ticket prices, and teams don’t seem to care, as an increasing amount and share of their revenue come from lucrative TV contracts as opposed to ticket sales. But not all teams are losing fans at an equal rate. Some have seen average attendance declines of more than a third over the last decade.”

Why was attendance dropping? Well, there are many answers to that question. But a few that stand out are:

-Comfort of watching at home

-Terrible Parking

-High ticket price

-High food cost

I’ve talked about it before, but our experience in the stadium ultimately wasn’t doing its job in matching the price of the ticket. This was a long-standing problem in our industry but was magnified when we gave fans the option to watch

We employed terrible tactics to solve it. Instead of addressing the problems above, we tried to solve them with TV blackouts and restrictions in watching to force fans to pay for an experience we knew was not up to par with what we were charging.

Ultimately the foundation of my thesis of a bust comes from the fact that we did not solve the issues we had pre-pandemic.

If we haven’t implemented major tactics to solve them, why would we expect the results to change?

To double down on that, we’ve educated and trained our fans on how to consume at home

Not only have we not solved the problem that plagued our industry pre-pandemic, but we’ve also made it a bit worse.

Before the pandemic, although fans were streaming our games, the adoption of platforms like ESPN+ had not reached the maturity stage in the tech product lifecycle. In short, while a lot of fans were using these platforms to stream…MOST fans were not.

Further than this, we’ve also digitized our gameday experience. Pre-game camera angles into warm-ups, ways to view the game from home, etc.

Don’t get me wrong, I will be the first to tell you that this is a HUGE step forward for our industry. The amount of inventory & engagement we’ve open up here will more than double the revenue we bring in as an industry in the next 5 years.

A common saying in the business & tech world is the pandemic accelerated the adoption of tech for many industries. There is no difference in the sports industry. We now must implement these digital initiatives (digital programs, streaming, digital engagement, etc.) in order to keep up with the situation we are in with no fans.

But a side effect of this is we have now gotten fans familiar with the very platforms that were eating into our attendance. We have trained fans on how to engage in their own homes.

With an in-stadium product that has had its issues, why would fans leave the comfort of their own home now that they have every access to experience it at home?

This is a major question we have to take into account as we think through this issue. This is, in my mind, an accelerant that will only expose our issues with getting fans into the stadium further…in some cases bringing it to a tipping point for most organizations.

We can’t expect the situation to be the same. We have to understand that we will be in a bigger uphill battle than before.

Incoming recession, will we price out our fans?

However, the presidential election goes this week, with the pandemic crippling our economy we can assume that our fans will have less disposable income than they have had in the past.

Much less disposable income. The honest truth is some fans will be thinking about how they will be able to pay rent. Your game experience won’t even be in the realm of any spending consideration.

Before the pandemic, in one of the strongest economies of all time, we had an issue with fans being priced out of tickets. The cost for a family of 4 to attend a professional game was astronomical.

To further add salt to the wound, the high price in many cases didn’t match the value that most fans felt the game experience held. By that, I mean many fans opted to stay home in large part because the cost was not worth the problems that they would face at the stadium (parking, traffic, high food prices, etc.).

If this was a problem before the pandemic, in a great economy, we can assume that it will be an even bigger issue when fans are allowed back into our stadiums.

Sure, at first I think we absolutely will see this affecting purchase rates less often as fans make an emotional purchase to attend the game after being neglected of it for so many months…but over a sustained amount of time it will be harder & harder for a fan to part with their

Ok, this sounds like a ticketing problem…how does it affect me in sponsorship?

In so many ways ticketing & sponsorship are inherently linked to each other. In sponsorship, we rely on eyeballs in our stadiums to make the high-priced signage worth the money to sponsors.

If there are fewer and fewer fans in the stands you will have to subsidize the lost views with something else or lower your price.

We never want to lower our price, but if you cannot report the same value as in the past you will have to adjust or watch as your sponsors spend less and less with your team.

We all know as well that in sponsorship, perception is reality. As our prospects & sponsors see empty seats they perceive it as a loss in influence. If fans aren’t coming to games to watch the team…do you really have enough influence to help successfully vouch for a sponsor through your sponsorship packages.

It is vital that we understand that empty seats in our stadiums will do major damage to our sales in sponsorship. How your ticketing, marketing, and game ops departments solve this is absolutely critical to your success in bringing in sponsorship dollars.

How can we fight against the bust? A plan of attack

I think the first step is to realize this is coming. We are all good at scenario planning at this point in the pandemic, this is a must scenario to plan for.

Unfortunately, I am hearing and seeing in the industry the opposite. There has been a lot of selling on the idea that there will be a boom when sports come back and you will want to be a part of it.

And as I mentioned earlier, I fully expect somewhat of a boom coming back. I think the timing of how long that boom is will depend on the state of the economy, but we will see an impassioned boom.

But we have to make a game plan to combat the bust period. How can we ensure that we sustain that BOOM over the entire season?

First, we have to fix the sins of our past. Sponsors can help us do that

This a somewhat of a blanketed statement. There are many teams that have solved most of these problems to create a truly seamless game experience. For those teams, I salute you.

BUT, for the majority of us, we’ve swept these problems with our game day experience under the rug.

We’ve lived a lot on the nostalgia, emotion, and power of our brand to cover up the issues with our game days.

Luckily, our sponsors can help us solve many of these issues. Mainly through funding.

Do you have long lines at your stadium to get in? Creating a sponsored entrance is a great way to alleviate the line. For example, at Barclays in Brooklyn NYC if you have an American Express card you can skip the line with an MVP entrance.

What this does is take the pressure off the overall line, as those American Express customers use the MVP line…there are inevitably fewer people to crowd the main entrance line.

Staying on lines, is there a technology out there that can alleviate long lines at concessions & bathrooms? Absolutely…but many times we can’t afford it.

Having a sponsor “fund” that technology with specific integrations into the experience is a great way to add it to your stadium experience.

If we are strategic, we can fund the alleviation of our stadium issues with sponsorship dollars and add them to the package.

In order to have a chance to come back stronger, we have to solve the sins of our past.

Parking, long lines, outdated chairs, high food cost, and countless more issues are solvable now. We can use sponsor dollars to help fund the solutions to these issues if we can link them back to the sponsor’s goal.

Sponsorship can help drive ticket sales, and sustain them if done correctly

As much as we are a pain in our ticketing department’s butts when it comes to discounting tickets etc….we do have ways that can help them drive sales through our packages and sponsorship assets.

A key example comes with bobbleheads. Sponsors love to be the presenting partner on a bobblehead. Their logo is tied to that item forever.

If you didn’t know…bobblehead giveaways are a great way to drive ticket sales. In fact…

“Bobblehead giveaways, it turns out, increase attendance by around 25 percent on weekdays and 9 percent on weekends, Graduate School of Management student Mai Nguyen found.” via UC Davis (Go Aggies).

You can increase ticket sales by 9–25% by giving away a bobblehead. That may not seem like a lot…but when you are staring down the barrel at only 50% attendance…boosting it to 75% looks a hell of a lot better.

But more important is the buying psychology it brings.

When a fan is deciding whether to buy a ticket to a game and are short on disposable income they are looking for value. They need to have the value of the game match what they can spend.

A bobblehead immediately adds value. Since they are receiving it for free, the price of the ticket in their head drops as they are receiving more for the dollars paid.

Notice that this does not drop the price of the ticket, it only adds context and value for the fan. This needs to be the gameplan. We can still preserve the value of our ticket price…it just is more easily justified to the fan with the free item.

What is further on this example though is we now have broken the seal for that fan buying tickets. We have broken through the hardest part to the system, getting them used to and comfortable with buying tickets.

One sponsored bobblehead has just turned a one ticket sale into multiple without dropping the price of your tickets….all the while bringing value to your sponsor. It is a win-win.

This is a prime example of how sponsorship can help during the bust. Funding the bobblehead helps your team not have to take a hit OR pass the cost onto the fan while simultaneously preserving the value of your ticket price.

A bobblehead is just one example of how this can help, there are many others. Having a sponsor subsidize a ticket price if you make a purchase is another great way to preserve the value.

There are countless other ideas, many we haven’t thought of yet, but it is up to us in sponsorship to understand the bust is coming and get creative on how we can help.

In essence, when the bust comes…don’t drop your price. Add value instead. A sponsored item will work wonders here.

Timing on both of these points will be key

WHEN you launch these campaigns will be the difference to keeping fans rolling in during the BUST phase.

Again if we can expect a BOOM, we don’t want to waste the

Think of these tactics like the bobblehead like our NOS. For all you non-street racers out there, Nitrogen Oxide is used to give the case a boost of speed for a few seconds to gain an advantage.

Press it at the wrong time, you will have wasted it as your opponent drives by.

Probably a terrible analogy, but my point is you don’t want to waste these tactics too early.

If you give away bobbleheads when the fans were already coming, you are wasting that tactic and won’t have it when you truly need it.

If you can time a bobblehead launch to when you think the drop will come, you can sustain the attendance for many weeks after most teams see a drop. You can break that seal in a fan to get them comfortable buying tickets at a moment when they are ready to cut that off their spending list.

In my mind, there will be somewhat of a feedback loop here. If your stadium is full while others around the sport start to empty…fans will psychologically link your game as something that is a “can’t miss” event.

As you plan your tactics, understand that timing is so important in this process. Save your best tactics for when things get really bad. It will pay off as others see a slump.

With whatever you do, you have to have a plan

My biggest fear for the industry is that we don’t recognize these issues and don’t have a plan to solve them.

Not that we could ever see a pandemic coming…but the results were so much worse for the sports industry because our revenue-driving assets were over-leveraged on the physical side of the game. We HAD to have butts in seats.

The fact that we were over-leveraged in the physical part of our game was predictable. I wrote about it HERE.

And really it came down to us not asking the hard questions about our industry. We didn’t want to think about the worse because…well…we were making money. We relied on a great economy, brand name, and TV revenues to sweep our real problems under the rug.

There is no excuse now to ignore them. We have to have a solution to these issues. We have to solve the reasons fans hate our game days in order to create a product that can survive the coming years.

The teams that see this. The ones that see their issues, solve them, and create a strategy to thrive while others survive will win out in the end.

In the sponsorship industry, we can…with our sponsors…be the catalyst for these solutions. Our sponsors can help fund the solutions to our game day problems.

If we define our sponsors as truly our partners, we can create assets that help both ends grow. It has never been more important than now to think about how our sponsors can help us thrive in the bust while helping them do so as well in the process.

A bust is coming…how prepared is your team when it does?

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