Commentary

We Won't Have Major League Sports This Summer (Or) Fall

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.

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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?

6 comments about "We Won't Have Major League Sports This Summer (Or) Fall".
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  1. Ed Papazian from Media Dynamics Inc, July 9, 2020 at 1:41 p.m.

    I think that you are correct, Dave, about the postponment of most "live" sports attractions until  sometime next year. As for reaching the "TV sports viewer", that's a complicated issue and , as you point out, the typical sports viewer also watches lots of other TV content. We should also note, however, that the average TV sports audience---in terms of time spent or average minute viewing--is predominantly male---about 60% and has a median age of around 50 years. There are variations, depending on which sport we are talking about. For example, NBA basketball is somewhat younger than the norm but also slants downscale income-wise while baseball is much older than the norm and football more or less sits at the middle of the age spectrum with a modest upscale skew. What the data also tells us is that each sport has developed its core fan base for TV viewing and these are sometimes exclusive--with only one or two sports favored and sometimes  with "junkies" trying to feast on anything called sports, including many talking head shows, day in and day out. 

    Another factor is the CPM differential between live sports and other types of TV content. If merely replacing their sports GRPs with other type of content was the goal of sports advertisers, this can be done with only half the exspenditure and even less for buys made only on cable. So, they can save half or more of their sports ad dollars and get the same number of GRPs---targeted as needed. This is probbaly what will happen---until a  workable vaccine is developed and we return to "normal", at which point advertisers who are in to sports promotionally---not just for GRPs---can pony up the big bucks and pay the huge CPMs that will be demanded---just like they always have.

  2. Joshua Chasin from VideoAmp, July 9, 2020 at 2:21 p.m.

    I assume the big winner here is going to be Esports. Who'd have thought competing frmo your bedroom would become a unique selling point?

  3. Gian Fulgoni from 4490 Ventures, July 9, 2020 at 2:41 p.m.

    Hmm. Not sure I agree. We have an example occuring to learn from. Professional soccer is being played in Europe right now with empty stands. As yet, I haven't heard that it's causing increased infection problems for the players and coaches. 

  4. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, July 9, 2020 at 3:54 p.m.

    Gian, Great point. I totally agree that it is possible to do games without fans, and that properly controlled the leagues will keep player infections down. Unfortunately for the leagues in the US, the infection trajectory here is pretty much exactly opposite that in Europe, which impacts not only the challenges in keeping the players safe and healthly, but the political climate to try.

  5. Gian Fulgoni from 4490 Ventures, July 9, 2020 at 8:03 p.m.

    Dave, while I agree that the infection rate is higher here than in Europe, it's not the case in every state. NASCAR and Golf have already re-opnened and I think that it should be possible for sports teams to contain the virus through frequent (i.e. at a minimum daily) testing and discipline. As far as the political climate, it's going to be a brave politiican who will resist the desire of Americans to watch their favorite sports, especially when they're safe at home. Actually, rather then politicians, I think the players are the ones who will decide whether we'll see pro sports this year. If they decide that the health risks outweigh the money they would make, then your prediction will be accurate. Otherwise, let's play ball!

  6. Dave Morgan from Simulmedia replied, July 10, 2020 at 1:23 p.m.

    Gian, I personally am hoping that we have all of our sports, but not sure those sports openings set much precedent for MLB, NBA, NCAA, NFL, etc. Neither golf nor NASCAR are contact sports by teams whose members are in close contact with each other, a lot, in both games and practices. I want to hear Play Ball!, but I also want those players to be safe and healthy so that they can play for us for many years to come.

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