100 Days That Changed The Game

Today marks 100 days since health officials first identified that a mysterious disease outbreak halfway around the world in Wuhan, China was caused by a novel coronavirus. It's difficult to wrap one's mind around all that has happened since that day, Jan. 7, 2020.

Looking back to that window, sports fans in the U.S. were watching the NBA's Houston Rockets dispatch the Denver Nuggets in a high-scoring regular-season game and getting ready for NFL action to heat up with the AFC and NFC divisional playoff games scheduled for the coming weekend. The future was bright. 

Then, what started as a local epidemic exploded into a pandemic that would affect millions of people in more than 170 countries. A lack of clarity and information at the early stages of the crisis created chaos in some parts of the world.

In others, it seemed as though the reality of the situation and a sense of urgency were slow to settle in. Early on in the U.S., many people seemed to be going on with their days with a little more caution and a little more deliberation in the face of the COVID-19 news headlines. But generally, life moved on.  



On Wednesday, March 11, however, something happened that made the world stop and pay attention -- a single NBA player tested positive for coronavirus.

This was the first known case of a high-profile professional athlete in the U.S. contracting COVID-19. All of a sudden, people were now listening attentively. What was not clear then -- but is now -- is that the sports industry would take the lead and help steer the world through a time of crisis.

I remember it vividly. That day at about 9:30 PM ET, the National Basketball Association (NBA) responded to the situation by cancelling all pending games and suspending the remainder of the 2019/2020 pro basketball season. This was the wake-up call.  

In the face of a dark situation, the NBA rose to meet the moment. The league demonstrated decisive leadership, putting the need to protect its players, teams, officials and fans ahead of all other considerations.

To my mind, no better example exists of an organization springing into action to guide its people as well as the general public through an unprecedented situation than this.

At a critical tipping point in time, the NBA took charge and was a first mover before mandated “shelter in place” orders all across the country.

In my lifetime, sports has always been the constant. In times of crisis like Sept. 11th and the Great Recession, sports never stopped. Regardless of external factors, every sports season started with high hopes and an open field of competitors and concluded with one victor standing on top. 

Now, major sporting events with live audiences and TV coverage became nonexistent. The world was left with an empty void absent competition that naturally provides entertainment and inspiration that is impossible to replicate -- and one that gives advertisers and sponsors the unmatched ability to connect with global audiences that span geographies, cultures and races. 

What followed was truly inspiring. We witnessed team owners, coaches and players come together to help and sacrifice for their communities. New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees committed to give $5 million to his adopted state of Louisiana, which has been especially hard hit by COVID-19.

And charitable contributions from NBA players Kevin Love, Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Golden State Warriors owners, players and coaches helped to pay the salaries of arena workers in Cleveland, Milwaukee and San Francisco affected by the cancellation of home games.

These acts of compassion and empathy serve not only to keep critical elements of the economy afloat, but also to inspire others to do good and give back to their respective communities. 

The global sports industry has the unique ability to reach people on an unmatched scale -- not just to entertain, but also to inform and motivate action.

By taking leadership roles in difficult times like these, leagues, teams, athletes and sponsors actually have the power to do good while also improving perception of their brands.  

One notable example comes from financial services provider Visa, which is communicating useful messages around personal health and safety through its roster of Olympic and Paralympic athletes.

Ambassadors featured in videos performing difficult feats of athleticism juxtaposed with simple acts of personal hygiene encourage everyone to “Do Your Part Like an Olympian” to combat the spread of COVID-19.

A recently conducted Nielsen Sports survey found that nearly 8 in 10 sports fans would try a new brand embodying empathy and compassion during the COVID-19 crisis while more than 7 in 10 fans indicate loyalty to brands with social values that align with their own.

How organizations and brands operate during times of crisis is also a factor. Fifty-seven percent of sports fans indicate they would try watching a new sports league based on how they conducted themselves during the crisis.

Looking at things from the opposite direction, 45% of fans would actually stop watching a sport or league if they did not like their conduct.

In summary, athletes embody physical strength and mental toughness. Teams and leagues work to empower their communities. Owners invest in local economies.

We have always led by example. This is what sport is about. During this unprecedented time, we must do what we have always done -- persevere in the face of adversity, inspire generations to be better and take care of one another.

If there is any good that comes from the COVID-19 pandemic, it's that it has brought us all together on one global team, to fight one momentous fight.

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