Commentary

Goldilocks And The Return To Live Spectator Sports

  • by , Columnist, March 9, 2021

As we approach the milestone of a year without full stadiums and arenas, consumer behaviors and expectations reflect vastly different perspectives.  On the precipice of March Madness and a new baseball season to follow, we see highly variable restrictions in place across different markets, each with varying implications for properties and their marketing partners.

Research has continually demonstrated the positive impact of in-person sponsor activation in driving fan connection, so we’ve been closely watching consumer pulsing in moving “back to normal.” New, early March data offers some encouragement, with some fundamental warning signs that remain.

Starting with the good news, we now see a high of 61% of fans indicating strong intent to be vaccinated for COVID 19.  And nearly 2/3 agree with the sentiment that “Once COVID -19 vaccines are available for all who want one, it will no longer be appropriate for the government to dictate the size of gatherings outside the home.”  With the latest expectations that we will reach this milestone by late spring, that’s a positive for sports venues currently restricted to allow anywhere from 5% to 25% capacity as the norm. 

In conversations with multiple properties, I’ve heard a desire to push these numbers higher, coupled with a recognition that early adopters could drive early demand and pricing yield to premium levels for those most clamoring for a live sports experience.

Indeed, we’re showing some 63% of those who attended a live sporting event within the past eighteen months are either ready to attend again without hesitation (44%) or have already done so (19%).  That’s a passionate bunch.

But on the flip side, there’s more than a third who continue to harbor some reservations about returning to the ballpark or arena, which suggests we may still be a ways off from full capacity crowds once we get past latent demand.

And that’s what brings us to one of the foundational sports marketing questions being asked right now: What is the proper messaging and tonality necessary to regain the trust and sense of personal control that we’ve continually seen driving consumer decision-making across the leisure space?

The above Goldilocks metaphor is what we’ve used to broadly reference the communication of safety protocols, as well as the foundational changes to the on-site experience that can’t be too hot or too cold.  They must be “just right.”

Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman coined the phrase “WYSIATI” (What you see is all there is), which we've seen to be an appropriate description of how consumers in the travel and leisure space have reacted to pandemic reopenings. Setting proper expectations and communicating the same will not be easy, given the divergence of perspectives among what feels right to sports fans. For the one third of them still on the fence, the tone set will be a critical success factor once we get past those with the greatest anticipation for return.

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