Spectator sports will return, but it’s a matter of how and when, say industry insiders

Friday, May 29, 2020

Spectator sports are among the many aspects of normal life formerly taken for granted, but missing, during the COVID-19 pandemic.

You don’t have to be a dedicated fan who has memorized hundreds of statistics and scores to know that the absence of sports events has caused serious economic impacts and created major changes in how many of us spend our free time.

Both die-hard and casual fans who are eager to know what the future will hold can gain insights from the people who work in local and national sports, said Erin Schneiderman, a clinical assistant professor in the special events management program at Arizona State University's School of Community Resources and Development.

Schneiderman is teaching a sports tourism class starting July 1 that she said will look into possible scenarios. Several industry decision-makers will make presentations to the class, offering opinions on what the future might look like.

Schneiderman spent five years with the National Football League's Corporate Hospitality Village before joining the 2008 Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, where she oversaw more than 200 events leading up to Super Bowl XLII.

In addition to hosting events for the community, Schneiderman worked with companies such as ESPN and professional sports teams to plan their events during Super Bowl weekend.

“Our country has been deprived of sports for two months and the void is being felt,” Schneiderman said. “Once-packed soccer fields sit empty, stadiums are losing money by the day, major events such as the Summer Olympics have been postponed and organizers consider multiple scenarios to ensure a safe reopening.”

Schneiderman’s summer online sports tourism course is designed for both fans and nonfans. The six-week class, which has no required textbooks, is held July 1 through Aug. 11. Students may register for either TDM 483 or CSM 483.

She said those who enroll in the class will learn about the current state of operations for many companies within the sports industry through video presentations from several sports-industry representatives.

“Although there are many unknowns, students will be interested to understand strategies, resources and the financial impacts facing the world of sports,” Schneiderman said. “From facilities such as Phoenix Raceway to museums such as the Hockey Hall of Fame, sports tourism is navigating uncharted territory with fans wondering when it will be safe to resume cheering for and participating in their favorite pastimes.”

Schneiderman said the COVID-19 pandemic has created “a whole new outlook for the future of sports and we will hear from leaders from the youth to professional levels.”

People are ‘social animals’ drawn to sports

One expected speaker is Frank Supovitz, president and chief experience officer for Fast Traffic Events and Entertainment, which produced prerace activities for the Indianapolis 500 auto race each year.

“Sports and mass entertainment will be back, and in as big a way as it was before the pandemic.  It’s really only a question of how long that’ll take,” Supowitz said. “It could be years, but it will be back because people are social animals."

sports ball arrangement, basketball, football, baseball

ASU tourism students gather during a visit to Sun Devil Stadium,  where they learned about the business of attracting fans to major athletic events. Photo courtesy of Erin Schneiderman

Supowitz said despite more than 600,000 Americans having lost their lives in the 1918–1919 influenza pandemic, within months many sports events returned.

“Mass gatherings were banned. Fans and ballplayers wore masks. (But) by 1920, Major League Baseball began setting a decade of new attendance records,” Supowitz said.

Most every sports team, league and venue has suffered financial challenges from the pandemic, because a significant percentage of income is based on spectators being physically present at these events, said another expected speaker in Schneiderman’s class, Adam Johnson, digital marketing manager for Phoenix Raceway.

This is not even counting revenue from sales of merchandise, concessions and other items, Johnson said.

Damage will subside with fans’ return

“While the return of sports will be much-needed and very beneficial, a lot of the damage will subside when spectators are able to return to the stands. Even that process is slow-moving, as it should be,” Johnson said. “For example, in NASCAR, races are already taking place again, and the schedule is locked-in through June so far. None of those events are expected to have fans, though.”

The leagues, teams and facilities will not necessarily be the ones making the decision to bring fans back into the arenas, stadiums and venues, Johnson said.

“Each league is working hand-in-hand with their local governments to safely bring things back. We all want sports back, with fans,” he said. “However, we all want safety to remain as the top priority. I think we’re seeing some great leadership at work across the board in the sports industry during these unprecedented times.”

What will that look like? During a time when event discussions frequently focus on the downsides, planners must concentrate on the upsides, Johnson said.

“Sports will be a little different when things return to ‘normal’ for everyone,” Johnson said. “I think you can expect more protective wear, more disinfectant substances like hand sanitizer available and just a more noticeable focus on general health and safety wherever you watch an event.”

Another of the course’s presenters, Deb Jayne, national event and membership director for the Phoenix-based Society for American Baseball Research, said those entering the industry need to learn as much from current professionals as possible.

“The best advice I can give to our future sporting event leaders is to learn from the experts. Find several different mentors — sporting venues, convention and visitors bureaus, event planners, venue suppliers, educators, etc. — follow them and ask lots of questions,” Jayne said. “We may not always have the answers, but we are willing to devote time in grooming our future generation of sporting event leaders.”

Learn more: Watts College summer session courses