Whether through bubbles, frequent testing or outdoor workouts, sports leagues have largely adapted to the challenge of bringing sports back to viewers. Now, industry leaders are pivoting toward bringing viewers back to sports, both virtually and in-person when it is safe to do so.
The final episode of Variety’s Rebooting the Entertainment Industry series, sponsored by PwC and Ad Council, Sports Leadership Vision During COVID-19, was moderated by Jay Tucker from the Center for Management of Enterprise in Media, Entertainment and Sports (MEMES) at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Featured panelists were Adam Grossman, chief marketing officer for the Boston Red Sox and Fenway Sports Management; Danita Johnson, president and chief operating officer for the Los Angeles Sparks; Marissa Daly, vice president and general manager of media for the Los Angeles Rams; and Mark McCaffrey, partner and U.S. Technology, Media and Telecommunications industry leader at PwC.
Panelists discussed their respective sports organizations’ resumption of games and adaptation to virtual fan engagement amid the pandemic, as well as athletes and leagues’ social-justice activism with regard to Black Lives Matter. Looking toward the future, the industry leaders also explored innovative ways to bring back in-person attendance.
“What resilience everybody has shown considering where we started and the unknowns, and the ability to get the leagues up and running,” McCaffrey said. “And quite frankly not only for the league’s sake, but to show that this can be done. When you control the environment, you can get up and running, and I think as you look at the country and where we stand today with the pandemic, with systemic racism, the leagues are really standing out as an example of how to put the best foot forward, and put the best minds into this.”
Adapting to coronavirus restrictions took a village, Johnson said, as the WNBA worked to set up and perfect its bubble. But after surmounting the challenges of restarting the season, the panelists’ focus turned toward engaging fans who could no longer attend games.
From virtual tailgates to Zoom pregame parties, the industry leaders said they sought to expand their reach beyond their home markets and foster authentic connections with fans across a digital landscape. As a result, the technological creativity spurred by the pandemic will remain an integral part of the sports world moving forward, such as through innovations in sports betting or the fantasy sports market.
“The takeaway in this is that as organizations, it’s our job to help push change forward,” Johnson said. “It’s our job to be that next innovator in the space. And so I think when we look at this, and my biggest learning is that take the risk. Take the thing that challenges your consumer. Do those activities, push them forward, because you never know what good can come from it.”
However, there’s ultimately no substitute to in-person attendance, Grossman said, and while some technological adaptations will continue to change the sports-entertainment landscape, the energy fans bring to a stadium remains an invaluable addition to events. To tier attendees back, cross-league collaboration established early on in March will continue to prove helpful as leaders navigate changing scenarios.
“The ability to work with partners, the ability to work with each other, the ability to work, honestly, across industries … I think the industry got a little smaller because we were all trying to figure out what today would bring, and how we could plan for tomorrow,” Grossman said.
Additionally, the panelists said along with long-term planning for in-person attendance, their teams want to ensure social justice and equity initiatives remain at the forefront of their leagues’ efforts.
For the WNBA, which comprises 80% Black women, social justice, from Pride campaigns to Black Lives Matter, has always been a focus, Johnson said. From the WNBA’s launching of the Social Justice Council to the Sparks’ campaign Change Has No Offseason, Johnson said, “It wasn’t just a pure reaction, it was things that we had kind of been doing along the way. It was more of like formalizing a game plan and double downing on what we were trying to do as an organization as a whole.”
As the industry sets its sights on returning fans safely — in a tiered, limited capacity — it will rely on the digital tools it has developed to tackle coronavirus-induced challenges and set the bar for what the future of sports entertainment will look like.
“We always talked about how sports mirror society — I think this summer and the last six months have probably never been a greater example of that in terms of how sports and the issues of today are mixed together, and the platforms that we all have are real opportunities to hopefully drive change for the future,” Grossman said.