With Little or No Sports, Marketing Should Be Patient and Inventive

Sports have not been immune to the uncertainty that the coronavirus crisis has caused.

Yesterday, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti suggested to CNN that large sporting events could remain banned in the city until 2021, the latest blow after more than a month of global and domestic cancellations and postponements.

But there have been some glimmers of hope. Dr. Anthony Fauci, who has been front and center throughout the COVID-19 response, said on Snapchat’s “Good Luck America” Wednesday that a safe return is possible with several restrictions, such as empty stadiums, testing athletes weekly and housing them in large hotels under surveillance.

And leagues such as the NFL have reportedly stated they are focused on playing a full season but are doing contingency planning if full stadiums are not a possibility. Some plans include hosting events without fans, allowing for small amounts of people to attend and playing fewer games.

With the potential for major events to be placed on hold until 2021 or for them to continue under drastically different circumstances, the business initiatives of both brands will undoubtedly need adjusting.

Advertising agency DMA United founder and CEO Marc Beckman said it is critical in this time to exercise patience.

“We don’t have real data yet. Even the leagues and the owners of the teams that are on [President Donald Trump’s] committee to ‘open the country back up again,’ those people don’t even have access to information,” Beckman said. “So it’s critical for companies to be patient and get all the information they can.

“They need to realize that the new reality is not going to give them a full budget that they were planning on spending in the third quarter, in the fourth quarter of this year, Beckman said. “They should be planning on cutting those budgets. But be patient. Don’t be overdramatic and when you get access to information, you’ll be able to make a plan that’s more cohesive.”

Aside from patience, the expert explained that it is important to be both strategic and inventive, something DMA — an agency fond of live events as a focal point of initiatives — has also been forced to do.

“We will no longer will we be able to assemble so many people in the same ways, so from a marketing activation perspective, we’re shifting to more digital live events with a physical space,” Beckman explained. “A blended approach where the physical component in the public is no-touch and it expands to the digital realm, live where people can be safe in the comfort of their home.”

He continued, “Let’s say you want to talk about fashion and sport. We would bring an elite athlete to talk about a particular design or style direction live in an interview where we could broadcast from the backyard of a hotel in New York in the open air and invite a select group of people to participate, give them access.”

In the meantime, as brands work to plan for a completely different sports landscape, they are using star athletes in ways they never have had to before. Mostly, they’re showing how they are living day to day, which isn’t far different from the fans they compete for.

For example, Fila, the company that backs No. 1 ranked tennis star Ashleigh Barty, has worked to use her and others in thoughtful social media messaging.

“We have been working very closely with them in an effort to bring some encouragement and joy to our fans around the world. One example is our #StayHome series [where] our athletes are creating videos to promote the importance of staying at home, while sharing hobbies and unique at-home training routines in an effort to remain in shape for when the season resumes,” explained Lauren Mallon, Fila director of marketing and strategic partnerships for tennis.

Regardless of planning, some industry insiders are skeptical about whether a return of sports would have any impact on both marketing or product sales, including footwear, which have taken a drastic hit during the pandemic.

“Sporting events do not move the market in athletic footwear, and so I do not believe their absence will either,” The NPD Group senior sports industry adviser Matt Powell wrote in a recent note. “Sports marketing will take a minor hit with these event postponements. The bragging rights of MVPs or league championships always bring additional exposure to a brand. But that kind of exposure does not manifest itself directly through consumer behavior. Instead, its value is more of a long-term brand-building tool. So the lack of brand exposure will not hurt much in the short term.”

According to data provided by Powell in a note on April 10, athletic footwear sales dropped about 75% for the week ended April 4 compared to the same period last year. The data mirrors his findings from a week earlier, which revealed that sales declined 76% in the fourth full week of March.

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