It begins. Yesterday, the Ivy League announced it is canceling fall football, leaving open the possibility to play in the spring. I expect every other major U.S. sports league to follow suit before this month is out, from MLB to the NBA, NHL, all of the NCAA and yes, even the NFL.
Sure, the Ivys don’t make money on sports and are not bellwethers for any of the three-letter sports league acronyms in the paragraph above. In fact, the Ivys are probably about as opposite in commitment to football from the NFL and SEC as is possible.
Nevertheless, I am convinced that the accelerating growth of new COVID-19 infections across most of the U.S. this month will make it abundantly clear to all -- imminently -- that it will be impossible to put on major team sports competitions this summer and fall without putting all players, coaches, staffs and support crews at unacceptable health risks.
Don’t forget, it took New York state 42 days post-lockdown to get new infections to flatten out after the meteoric rise that began in March. Most of the states where the pro sports leagues are hoping to play -- Florida, Arizona, Nevada -- haven’t even come close to implementing lockdowns like New York imposed. The chances that those states are going to flatten out any time soon is very low. Dr. Fauci has been clear about it this week: The country is still knee-deep in the first wave.
Yes, the sports industry desperately wants, nay, needs, the leagues to play. The loss of live sports will be devastating to the television, local news, advertising and gambling industries for example, not to mention the impact on the hundreds of billions in collective sports franchise valuations of all the teams across all the leagues.
I believe, however, that cooler heads are likely to prevail, particularly from those most exposed: the players and coaches.
“The season, it’s not on my radar, really,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell told reporters in Milwaukee earlier this week, as quoted by The New York Times. “This is on my radar: It’s keeping everybody healthy and safe and doing the best we can at that job.”
Sure, it’s going to take another week or two of daily rising infection numbers, reports of hospital reaching capacity, and local mayors and governors across the county imposing new lockdown orders for all the players, leagues, owners and university presidents to get to the place where Craig Counsell is: Accept that this season is no longer a priority. All that matters is keeping everybody healthy and safe.
For those in the media industry dependent on live sports on TV, it’s time to get your Plan B in place. As Jack Welch famously preached, it’s time to see reality as it is, not as you would like it to be.
What is the Plan B for advertisers and agencies dependent on the live sports fast tentpole delivery of broad audiences? It starts with getting their data scientists to work, building predictive models of where they’ll be able to find those same sports fans in the same time frames at similar scale, and do it cost-effectively.
If we look at Nielsen’s respondent and TV device data from April, when we lost live sports from TV as well, we have some hints of where to look.
First, sports viewers didn’t abandon TV. Far from it. Even without sports, they watched more TV for more time than when sports were on. They just watched across many more networks and many different dayparts.
Some of that viewing will be on ad-supported streaming, but data from April tells us ad-supported streamer viewing will be less than 3%, since the vast majority of the increased streaming was on ad-free products. Linear TV is where they will be at real scale, if you want to be able to serve them ads.
Critically, while sports viewers followed certain patterns in the shows they watched -- lots of cooking shows and entertainment reruns, for example -- their viewing wasn’t evenly spread around. Thus, just buying wide and deep wouldn’t have reached them at the same kind of scale.
No, it will require lots of mass scale precision, smartly assembling thousands of spots on 80 different networks to replicate the delivery of 30-40 spots in live sports. Fortunately, those shows are priced much lower than sports, so advertisers following that strategy will have some advantages.
We won’t have major league live sports this summer and fall. It pains me to write it, but I think that for folks in the industry who with a big dependence on sports, it’s better to accept it and get on with what needs to be done. What do you think?