Sports Fans' Great Return To Normal That Wasn't

  • by , Columnist, July 13, 2021
One of the more fascinating things about being a marketing researcher is that you’re constantly reminded your own thoughts are often far removed from a more nationally representative reality.  As perceptive as any marketer tries to be, we are victims of our own cocoons and echo chambers.  My work forces me to step out of those regularly.

This issue has been particularly acute during what we have all heralded and promoted as a national emancipation from COVID-19 restrictions, and the full reopening of sports.  Yes, I’ve flown nine times in the past three weeks and been to multiple sporting events.  But for sports fans nationally, a desired summer of freedom and liberation has continued to be a tense summer of discontent.

Our latest findings among sports fans shows only 42% optimistic about the future of our country.  That’s down from 52% in late October.  A majority are personally observing higher prices for consumer items. Only a third strongly believe that people will be spending freely on luxuries again before the end of the year…down eleven points from where we were a year ago.



A similar third believe that the economy will add jobs before the end of the year, which is down from 77% in April of 2020.

But perhaps most tellingly, only 51% agree with the statement, “From my standpoint the COVID pandemic is over.”

We are currently seeing record levels of consumers’ re-engagement with favorite activities. But our research is also showing that this re-engagement has been tentative and often disconcerting.

Two thirds agree that it’s awkward determining whether to shake hands in public.  Further, in both qualitative and quantitative research, we’ve looked into the phenomenon of what we are calling a “COVID liberation moment,” defined as a particular time when someone felt they had gotten their pre-pandemic life back in some meaningful way, either temporarily or permanently.  

I felt I had achieved my COVID liberation moment months ago, when I returned to business travel and sporting events.  But barely half of American sports fans agree that they have experienced theirs, and only six in 10 of those felt this liberation was permanent.

Thankfully, most U.S. sporting venues are now open to full capacity.  In my opinion, this is long overdue.  But sports marketers need to cast aside any personal exultation and look no further than an Olympics in Japan, which will have no spectators. So we need to recognize that for at least half of sports fans, we are still immersed in a COVID hangover of sorts, if not a more tenuous America.

That will predicate a careful examination of the most appropriate marketing messaging that can motivate fans to reengage. Clearly the data shows that people are acting on pent-up demand. But our research shows undertones that suggest continuing hesitation -- and, for many, the return to favorite activities is an underwhelming experience.  Couple that with a tepid mood on the stability of things nationally, and we need to question the medium-term viability of our liberation from COVID. That has serious implications for how we market sports.

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