Opinion: What happens when live sports takes a timeout?
Sports connects us as a nation, and globally, too. It breeds inspiration, elation, happy tears, the occasional grumble … and also connect us to brands. So, what happens when a global crisis causes a timeout? And what will marketers do about budgets that are tied up in sports when the future is unpredictable?
The last couple of months have been a wake-up call that none of us expected—including those leading sports, marketing and even the government. We went to bed on a Wednesday night, and woke up Thursday morning to a world where everything had stopped, including sports.
I recall being mid-flight to the West Coast on March 11, when the NBA announced that it suspended the season. My first thought was that this was the beginning of a domino effect, and sure enough the dominos toppled over, and quickly. The next morning, others followed suit including the NCAA, NHL, PGA, The Masters, ATP, Auto Racing and The Olympic Games. Even Dana White and the UFC eventually relented, and they never give up a good fight.
For most of us, sports were not our first concern when COVID-19 struck and likely not our second or third either. However, for those who touch the sports business, reality began to hit us hard. Our agency, for instance, works with brands that participate heavily and have title sponsorships with the NFL, NHL, Indy Car, NASCAR, PGA and The Olympic Games, among others. All of a sudden, those programs came to a hard stop. Planning halted. Media went dark. Travel plans were canceled. The next step was regrouping with clients to determine ‘what’s next’; planning, messaging, how and when to support and engage—if to support and engage.
So, as we stare down the path of uncertainty as to when live sports will be making a comeback, what should brands be considering?
The no-live-sports brand playbook
Now more than ever, it is important for brands to be authentic and provide reassurance to customers. Be sure to leverage and repurpose content that has already been created, and utilize athletes or influencers with whom you have relationships, that resonate with your audience. And perhaps most importantly, take this time to engage with customers in a new way using social and/or connected TV solutions. While stadiums and arenas sit empty, social and connected TV is where people are now spending their time.
Contractual agreements with leagues and athletes also need to be navigated, as well as media commitments related to digital, TV and on-site activations.
During this time, it is essential to work on strategies that include integration of the brand, but that also express empathy and understanding that "we are all in this together," by making the employees, the consumer and society at large the focus. Because, honestly, this is so much bigger than sports.
That said, when it comes to athlete relationships, it's important also to execute programs that give athletes more of a voice and show our commitment to them and the sports to which they are dedicated. The core messages that brands wish to convey shouldn't changed, just the approach. And this time provides the opportunity to build on the continuity of the brand.
This is an unprecedented time for everyone, not just those within the world of sports, and we are all learning on the fly. I’ll leave you with a few things that remain tried and true:
A fundamental plan always wins. Reorganize your basics, and create fundamental structure that allows for flexibility in agreements, including both media and creative.
We’re all connected, now more than ever. Know that the story of the brand, just like the story of the customer, is somewhat intertwined by nature for the first time in recent history.
The pursuit of happiness relates to all. We are all focused on overcoming challenges in our daily pursuits. That’s a message which resonates with everyone.
And know, continuity is not a bad thing. In other words, as the world takes a pause, a brand willing to spend time with a customer throughout this period will build a relationship and continuity in media, experiences and branding that will always provide opportunities in the future.