Some of the games go on
Photo by iStock November 17, 2020
UD Lerner Webinar examines what’s next for the sports industry
The sports industry has endured a dramatic transformation during the last few months because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Teams in the four most prominent U.S. professional leagues — the National Basketball Association, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball and the National Football League — suspended or postponed the start of their seasons until they decided it was safe to resume, leaving many fans disappointed. Like all businesses, the sports industry had to quickly rethink its strategy to engage fans and play games.
Since it may be some time before the end of the global pandemic, what will be the sports industry’s new normal? In an effort to navigate this changing landscape, the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics brought together experts from Lerner’s faculty and alumni during the Sept. 17 Lifelong Lerner Webinar Series. These discussions will be broadcast monthly and you can register for this series here.
When the major leagues chose to proceed with their seasons, they still faced a number of obstacles. The NBA and NHL made it mandatory for players to quarantine and play in a bubble — one or two arenas, with hotels only for players and league personnel — with piped-in crowd noises and cardboard cut-outs of sports fans in the place of empty arena seats. Major League Baseball and the NFL got off to rocky starts. Pre-season training was delayed, although league administrators allowed teams to travel to cities for games without fans. Once the seasons began, games were postponed because of subsequent outbreaks. In all cases, teams relied heavily on live streaming and televised broadcast of games to keep fans interested and revenues flowing.
Moderator Sarah Williams, assistant professor of sport management at the Lerner College, spoke with UD Lerner alumnus Jim Donofrio ’91, vice president of sponsorship sales and strategy for NBC Sports, as well as Professors Matt Robinson and Tim DeSchriver, to share their views on where the sports industry will be headed next.
“[This pandemic] has shown the need for creativity and to think outside the box,” said DeSchriver, who is an associate professor of sport management at the Lerner College.
The panel first weighed in on the ways in which the sports industry is rising to meet the wavering needs of its stakeholders, which, as explained by Donofrio, include the viewers, business partners, sponsors and advertisers of sports entertainment. The industry is focused on capturing the diverse interests of its audience through viewing platforms, whether it be big-screen television or social media. However, this pandemic has complicated the production of entertaining sports content.
“The challenge we're having right now is: How do we capture the viewers?” Donofrio asked. “The biggest area that we're focused on is user-generated content, content that our fans are creating that we can then highlight, as well as leveraging our talent and our celebrities to tell the story.”
The conversation about the “new normal of sports” then shifted to the matter of job prospects in the industry. Williams welcomed the panelists to share their predictions of business trends that will likely take shape and advice for college students to prepare for these adjustments.
Robinson, professor of sport management and area head of sport management at the Lerner College, said students entering the workforce right now need marketable talents like creativity and innovation.
“I think even though we are physically separated, there's even more of an emphasis these days on communication skills,” DeSchriver said. “You must be an effective communicator, whether it's via writing, emails, texts or orally and being able to communicate over the phone.”
The panelists agreed that the sports business world is quickly adapting to rapid advancements in technology and felt these conditions can benefit candidates who have a willingness to work.
“The 20-year-old student has such an incredible opportunity in front of them, and that's in a number of ways,” Donofrio said. “If you are a revenue generator, there will be jobs available for you. You'll probably get in the door. Once you're in the door, it's all about what you do.”
The panel addressed how the COVID-19 pandemic has also impacted collegiate athletics, also a major revenue generator. Many fall and winter sports seasons were canceled or shortened. The NCAA is planning to move its entire 68-team basketball tournament to one location in 2021. The Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), in which the Blue Hens football team plays, is looking at options for spring football.
For high school athletes who are trying to remain relevant in the eyes of NCAA recruiters, the panel provided observations as colleagues of college sports recruiters. The professionals maintained that high-ranking academics, visibly exceptional leadership and interpersonal skills will help a high school student-athlete be appealing to an NCAA recruiter.
“One of these is observational areas, and I cannot emphasize this enough: [The high school student-athlete] has got to be a total package,” said Robinson.
The panelists agreed that high school and college athletes have a story to tell right now, as do undergraduates who are set to embark on a career path in the wide world of sports.
“Life right now is a test of courage and commitment. Is it a wall or is it a mountain to climb?” Robinson asked. “This will present you with a question of whether or not this is what you truly want to do. This is toughening you up, so use it while you can.”
Upcoming Lerner Webinars
Thursday, Nov. 19, 4 p.m. EST— Helping Restaurants Pivot During a Pandemic
Thursday, Dec. 17, 4 p.m. EST — Weathering the COVID Storm - Keeping Small Businesses Afloat