I have spent a large part of the past 21 months studying the pandemic’s impact on sports. I’ve also been back out on the road quite a bit, and perhaps two of the most prevalent observations that I’ve made are 1), we are more divided as a nation than I can ever recall over the duration of my career as a researcher; and 2), regardless of how we feel about masks, mandates, elected officials or vaccinations, we feel increasingly isolated and constricted from a recent past that seems more idyllic.
The natural next step is to test these hypotheses through survey research.
In doing so, we’ve found both hypotheses to be true. The divisiveness shouldn’t be a shocker, for it’s all around us.
Table that reality for a moment, and let’s consider my second conclusion. For almost a year now, we’ve been measuring what we’ve defined to be “COVID liberation moments,” defined as a particular moment in time where for someone personally, they felt that they had basically gotten their pre-pandemic life back in some meaningful way, either temporarily or permanently.
In late December, only 37% of sports fans strongly agreed they had achieved a COVID liberation moment. That is down significantly from where we were in June. Perhaps more significantly, 59% agree with the statement, “Compared to the start of the pandemic, I feel more isolated from the world around me.” Only 43% strongly agree that people around them seem happy. Less than a third believe we will see an end to the pandemic in 2022.
While this may seem morose on the surface, I’d maintain it actually presents a differentiating point of competitive advantage for sports. Additional research has consistently demonstrated the ability of sports to bring people together, creating a sense of shared purpose and community around a particular team, spectacle or activity.
We’ve also seen sports’ power in creating escape and release from one’s day-to-day concerns. One of the most highly agreed-upon statements in our regular tracking of golfer sentiment during what has been a pandemic-driven surge in participation, has been that golf provides an “oasis from the chaos.”
From the broader perspective of fandom, in its simplest form, sports creates kindred spirits in times where physical social connection continues to be limited or compromised. My beloved Tennessee Titans earn the #1 seed in the AFC playoffs for the second time in franchise history, and I am virtually high-fiving fellow fans that I have never met -- on a team message board. I don’t know or care if these fans have been vaccinated or are wearing a mask. Which side of the political chasm they reside on is irrelevant.
And therein lies the unique power sports marketers need to leverage now, more than ever.