The Olympics are held every two years, and each one is the type of international event that’s been in the works for a decade or more. Cities bid to be the host and then work for years and pour billions of dollars into preparations.
With all of that planning and investment, it’s an enormous event that could only be stopped by something equally monumental. That’s exactly what happened this year, as the worldwide impact of coronavirus on sports was seen in the Tokyo Olympics postponing this summer’s event to July 2021.
Japan had spent about $12 billion preparing for the event, and much of that will likely not be made back. The travel industry has been hit hard by the pandemic, and it’s impossible to say how many people will be willing to travel to such a large event next summer.
Sports all around the world have been affected, with most shut down completely for at least several weeks. One estimation looking at the US stoppage of pro, college, and youth sports put the revenue loss at $12 billion, and that figure could double if the NFL and college football aren’t able to return in the fall.
Amateur athletes and weekend warriors have been impacted in a few different ways as the fitness industry has dealt with COVID-19. But sports fans have largely been left in the wilderness, waiting for the sense of normalcy that games and competitions provide.
NBA’s Decision Leads the Way
For many people in the US, the full reality of the pandemic didn’t hit until the NBA suspended its season on March 11. Several games had already tipped off that evening, but during warmups for a game in Oklahoma City between the Thunder and the Utah Jazz, it was announced that the game would be postponed and fans were told to leave the arena.
Reports quickly confirmed that a Jazz player had tested positive for COVID-19, and it was revealed to be two-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. The next day another Jazz player, Donovan Mitchell, tested positive and several more players tested positive in the following days.
The league, which had previously been considering playing games with limited or no fans in attendance, knew that one positive test meant the virus had already had a chance to spread to several more players and team personnel. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver initially announced the season would be suspended for 30 days.
As of late May, several team practice facilities have been opened for players to train but there is still no clear timeline on when, or if, the 2019-20 season will recommence. And the WNBA season that was scheduled to start on May 15 has been suspended indefinitely.
While the NBA was the first major domino, many more followed on March 12. The NCAA announced that the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, as well as its other winter and spring championships, would be cancelled. Other leagues, including the NHL and MLS, also put their seasons on hold, and no team sport in America has yet returned or started its new season, such as MLB.
In a bit of irony, Utah’s Gobert, who two days before his positive test jokingly mocked the seriousness of the coronavirus and touched all of the mics and recorders near him at a press conference, has been credited for helping people realize the seriousness of the situation. Life in the US changed rapidly after the NBA suspended its season, and Gobert later apologized for his actions and made donations to those affected by the virus.
From the digital marketing angle, a decline in overall ad spend generally followed the increase in coronavirus cases. According to Socialbakers data, by the end of March the cost per click for all worldwide sport ad accounts was about $0.09, compared to $0.124 at the same time in 2019.
Similarly, the usage of #ad and other regional sponsored hashtags decreased to a 15-month low for Instagram influencers associated with worldwide sport accounts.
Other Entertainment Options
Many major sporting events that would’ve taken place over the last couple of months have been postponed or cancelled, including March Madness, the Masters, and the conclusion of seasons like the English Premier League (sorry Liverpool fans).
In their place, fans cooped up at home have been looking for their fix from something other than live sports. Many people turned to esports or other video games and streaming services, as Socialbakers data showed big increases in Instagram influencer mentions for Netflix’s documentary series “Tiger King” and the game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” on the Nintendo Switch, compared to similar releases the previous year.
In the sports world, one streaming option reigned supreme: “The Last Dance”, a 10-part documentary produced by ESPN and Netflix about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls dynasty. The debut episode on April 19 averaged 6.3 million viewers, making it easily the most-watched documentary in ESPN history and the highest-rated non-live event on the network since 2004.
Over its full run, the documentary, which was moved up from its planned release date in June, averaged 5.6 million viewers across all episodes airing on ESPN and ESPN2. The series was also available the next day on Netflix’s international streaming services, with the platform reporting that more than 23 million outside the US tuned in to at least part of the documentary.
23 was always his lucky number!
23.8 million households outside the US checked out The Last Dance in its first four weeks on Netflix pic.twitter.com/xS4GCR1uzU
— Netflix (@netflix) May 20, 2020
The documentary dominated most sports social media conversations in the US, but it wasn’t the only thing happening. Other slices of entertainment included basketball players participating in both a video game tournament and a HORSE competition that was sponsored by State Farm, while nearly a million fans tuned in to watch the first virtual NASCAR race on Fox Sports 1.
KBO and Bundesliga Get Worldwide Attention
Considering how eager sports fans have been for content while in quarantine, the first league to return figured to gain fans all across the globe. Enter the Korean Baseball Organization.
The timeline of sports returning is, not surprisingly, largely tied to the countries where they’re played. And since South Korea has been one of the best countries at testing and controlling the spread of the coronavirus, its baseball league was able to be the first team sports league to return to action on May 5.
It didn’t matter that games would air largely in the middle of the night for US fans; many stayed up to watch the games on ESPN while deciding whether to become fans of the NC Dinos or the Samsung Lions.
Germany’s Bundesliga became the first major soccer league to return to action on May 17, with games similarly aired on ESPN for sports-starved fans who normally wouldn’t watch soccer but are willing to take what they can get these days.
Borussia Dortmund’s stadium holds 80,000+ people.
Today, they’re playing with no fans and following strict social distancing guidelines. pic.twitter.com/LKo0cO7Hv6
— ESPN (@espn) May 16, 2020
So far both leagues have been able to proceed without issues, and the KBO is even working on plans to open 20 percent of its stadium to fans by early June. Other soccer leagues including the EPL, La Liga, Serie A, and MLS are slated to return to action in June or July, pending future developments.
Meanwhile, a study of European sports sponsorships found that 72% of brands intend to extend their current partnership deals. So when games do return, there will likely be the same brands advertising in the stadiums and on TV.
Individual Sports Start to Make a Comeback
While the NBA suspending its season was the tipping point for most sports leagues, the first major cancellation in the US came two days earlier on March 9. That’s when the Indian Wells Masters, considered the fifth biggest tennis tournament of the season, was cancelled.
Other tennis tournaments worldwide made similar decisions in the following weeks, including Wimbeldon being cancelled for the first time since World War II. However, since individual sports are more easy to control than team sports, they’ve also been some of the first to return to action.
The UFC, for example, returned from hiatus on May 9 and held three events in an eight-day span at a mostly empty arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
The mixed-martial arts company has also discussed hosting future events on a so-called fight island, where fighters and training staff would be quarantined away from the general population. The NBA and MLB have also discussed a solution like that, but none have been implemented.
Meanwhile, driving is one of the safest outdoor activities for anyone during the quarantine so it makes sense that auto racing was able to come back. NASCAR drivers ditched the virtual races for real ones as the series returned to its schedule on May 17, while IndyCar and Formula One are scheduled to return in early June and early July, respectively.
Depending on which US state you live in, golf has either been encouraged as a way to safely exercise during the pandemic or courses have been closed. Some states have gone through both, but in general it’s easier for golfers to keep a safe distance from each other than most sports.
That’s why there have been some charity golf events featuring big names like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson, and the PGA is scheduled to return in mid-June with the LPGA to follow in July.
Tennis tournaments are also scheduled to return in July, as slowly but surely sports try to get back on schedule, albeit with little or no fans in attendance.
The worldwide pandemic has affected people in many different ways. Through the lens of sports, it has largely taken away both a source of entertainment for those sitting at home and a source of exercise for people unable to go play a pickup game.
In the absence of live sports, people largely turned to replays or other nostalgic forms of reliving their favorite games. Fans consume more sports on more platforms than ever before, but they still need those sports to actually take place in order to do that.
As the leagues continue to return, there’s going to be big opportunities for digital marketers to advertise to fans who either aren’t allowed to, or aren’t comfortable, attending a game in person. Because even though things are starting to return, the world is still a ways away from the sight of a sellout crowd cheering at a live game.To learn about other industries that Socialbakers has analyzed, read about how coronavirus has impacted education or how beauty influencers adapt to times of crisis.