Throughout the agonizingly long negotiations between the players' union and the owners in Major League Baseball, the owners attempted to make one thing abundantly clear — with no fans in the stands for this season (at least starting out), they will not be running a profitable business. The degree to which certain owners hyperbolized the situation varied, but there is no doubt that there will be a revenue shortfall this season.
Basketball is going to experience a similar fiscal wound once they add up the numbers post-Orlando bubble playoffs (assuming we make it there while averting a COVID-19 breakout of biblical proportions), and football, college and pro, well, who the hell knows. That's over two months away, which is an eternity in COVID pandemic times.
These are the times that test the entrepreneurial spirit and creativity of captains of industry. Owners of professional sports teams, and athletics directors overseeing college sports, are going to need to find ways to mitigate the damage. Chances are they don't find a way to get back to breakeven again, but they can limit the damage and perhaps find improvements over ways they've been doing certain things pre-pandemic.
Here are a few examples and suggestions:
The NFL already expanded the playoffs with the new CBA that was signed, coincidentally, just before the coronavirus shut everything down in March. Baseball's ownership proposed expanded playoffs for this season and next season, but the players rejected it, because... wait, why did they reject it? Everyone would have made more money! Oh that's right, they did it out of spite. The big one here for me actually is the College Football Playoff. If there is no college football this fall, the damage is going to be severe and far reaching, gutting athletics programs and various on-campus projects. Expansion from the four team college football playoff to an eight or even a 16 team format has been back-burnered until at least 2026. Well, that timeline might need to be moved up. There are hundreds of millions of dollars on the table for more postseason football games at the collegiate level. I could see the powers that be issuing an emergency change to the current format and expanding it as soon as 2021.
Ads on uniforms
So I was in studio one morning preparing for my morning radio show, and there was a baseball game being televised on ESPN. The game was being played in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO, for short), and the players had their jerseys covered in patches of various businesses. It wasn't to the degree that we see in NASCAR, where the jumpsuits the drivers wear look like the inside door of a junior high student's locker. I could absolutely see these leagues taking their time in the offseason after the pandemic and coming up with a strategy on leveraging the currently unused (or minimally used) ad space right there on the bodies of the players.
Advertising in stadium
Similarly, there are monetizing opportunities in the stadium that will exist, even if fans aren't sitting in the seats. The NFL is the first league to realize this and enact a strategy to monetize the empty seats, approving a plan where the first six to eight rows in each stadium can be covered in advertising. I would expand that to somehow include the remainder of the stadium for aerial shots, with the tarp over empty seats representing a prime advertising opportunity. I could also see these leagues trying to maximize the entire television screen, and include as many ads within the flow of the game on the screen as they can without detracting from the quality of the overall viewing experience.
Special features and content
Finally, these leagues need to realize that they are sitting on some prime opportunities to generate content that they, previously, may have been nervous to crank out, or didn't feel an urgent need to because, well, business has always been good. Business is going to be rough this year, so taking fans for a premium experience, taking them to places where they can't normally go, should be part of the strategy. Perhaps there are alternate feeds of audio, or pregame and postgame behind the scenes video feeds (locker room, etc) that fans will be willing to pay extra for. Televising practices during training camp should be a must. And I'm even for the really wild ideas like this one from Brandon:
The climb out from the COVID ditch is real for so many business owners, and the ability to adapt and push forward is going to be a big key. From that standpoint, sports owners are no different than the mom and pop shops getting ravaged by the ripple effects of this virus.