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Eric Fisher | Global pandemic requires leaning on sports in a different way

SportBusiness' US editor Eric Fisher looks at the deeply altered role sports now plays in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Eric Fisher

It seems like a sure bet that even decades from now, we’re all going to remember where we were on March 11 when we heard that the National Basketball Association suspended its entire 2019-20 season indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It’s not necessarily going to be a particularly exciting answer either, given that many of us were already at home beginning to heed the then-growing calls to practice social distancing.

But the NBA’s move, which followed a growing series of announcements that day around the sports industry to suspend certain games or play them in an empty arenas, has seemed to serve as a something of a line of demarcation for all of society.

Since Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for Covid-19, in turn prompting the NBA’s rapid suspension decision, it’s been a seemingly endless series of postponements, cancellations, layoffs, and wage reductions around the sports industry, and broader societal news of stay-at-home orders, rising numbers of Covid-19 cases, and extreme stress on medical systems.

And instead of sports helping to lead society out of a tragedy by providing relief, staging games, and raising charitable funds following a natural disaster or something like the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, sports this time played a prominent role in galvanizing public attention into the severity of the ongoing pandemic.

That makes for an unbelievably tough and unprecedented situation, when one of the crucial things uplifting people after each of those tragedies – being physically together around sports – is the very thing that can’t be done now.

So that now requires leaning on sports in a very different way.

Top athletes for many years have used various visualization techniques to achieve peak performance, deeply imagining and focusing senses an intended on-field scenario to reach a heightened state of calm, create an effortlessness to their movement, and help that performance to occur. Common phrases like “being in the zone” are now overused to the point of being trite, but they indeed reference reaching that elevated mental state.

Operating a sports business during a global pandemic is obviously not a direct parallel, and in this horrific situation, there are certainly fewer things actually in any of our direct control. But given that attending live sporting events again will undoubtedly be a bellwether sign of the overall societal recovery, many industry executives nonetheless have already begun to focus strongly on that anticipated future, and use that as a crucial rallying point both internally and externally.

“The one thing I know for sure is baseball will be back,” said Rob Manfred, Major League Baseball commissioner, in a widely viewed ESPN interview. “Whenever it’s safe to play, we’ll be back…We will be part of the recovery, the healing in this country from this particular pandemic.”

In the meantime, as social distancing is the law of the land and employees of all stripes seek to master the nuances of working from home, there already have been widespread reports of a deeply changed sports business.

A business that even with the current difficulties of physical separation and growing financial pressure has still in many pockets grown kinder, more considerate, less cutthroat, more communicative, and thanks in part to videoconferencing bringing us directly into each other’s homes, in some ways actually more connected.

“The daily conversations we’ve been having remotely, with the ability to analyze different pieces of the business, this situation has opened up a new level of dialogue and allowed us to discuss things that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise, particularly because of where things normally are at this point in the calendar,” said Ken Babby, founder of Fast Forward Sports Group, which operates a pair of minor league baseball teams. “We’ve had a lot of great ideas emerge out of all that.”

Everybody’s collections of great ideas, to whatever part of the industry they apply, will serve a critical purpose focusing all of our attention on that hopeful future when it’s game on again.

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