Eric Fisher | Things could get worse before they get better in 2021

SportBusiness US Editor Eric Fisher on trying to fill empty seats, both here and across the industry

The empty stadium seat has defined and symbolized so much of the sports industry in 2020, and will almost certainly do so to an ever greater degree in 2021. Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, many pro and college teams were unable to fill their venues and were forced to leave most or all of their seats empty this year, absolutely gutting the entire business as we’ve come to known it. 

As most sports properties generate about 40 to 50 per cent of their total revenues from sources tied to gate revenue, the fallout across the industry from all those empty stadium seats was severe, and sadly, is still manifesting itself in a variety of unfortunate ways including layoffs, furloughs, salary reductions, shut-down sports programs, missed games and entire seasons, abandoned business initiatives and opportunities, and even more tragically, illness and death.

How those empty seats get filled, and how quickly that happens, will speak volumes on whether this 2020 litany of grim news will be meaningfully reversed. There is substantial hope on the horizon with the arrival of several different Covid-19 vaccines, and inoculations have already begun in the United Kingdom and in the United States. 

For the many months, however, that widespread vaccine distribution will still require, there will remain significant reticence to attend live events and gather in large numbers. In other words, the road to industry recovery will be decidedly bumpy, and could indeed get worse yet before it gets better.

Here at SportBusiness, we also now have our own empty seat with the tragic and sudden passing earlier this month of our founder and group editorial director, Kevin Roberts. 

I was a relatively new figure in Kevin’s orbit during his several decades of remarkable work across the sports industry, having known him for only a little more than two years. But all the attributes he showed to others – the razor-sharp wit, relentless curiosity, deep and abiding sense of fairness and decency, and boundless generosity – were all on full display in my interactions with him, and they are each elements we intend to carry forward in everything we do here as he will be greatly missed. 

Empty seats were a fundamental part of one of my initial interactions with Kevin. Staging a conference in early May 2019 in Miami, Florida, within days of my arrival to SportBusiness, we held a staff outing to Marlins Park to attend a Miami Marlins game. A sleepy early-season game roughly 10 months before the arrival of the pandemic and more than a year before the Marlins’ on-field competitive resurgence, the game had everything many had come to expect for years from the franchise: a sparse and listless crowd of less than 12,000, and poor situational play that resulted in yet another loss for the home squad and further solidified their spot as Major League Baseball’s worst club at the time.

Kevin, a native Brit, had previously attended few, if any, baseball games of any type. And I spent a fair amount of the afternoon explaining to him that the Marlins of that moment, even with the lofty intentions of new club ownership, were indeed not the archetype for any type of excellence in the sport, either on or off the field, and that the atmosphere we saw that day bore little resemblance to what one could find in many other MLB ballparks.

That Marlins game ultimately led to many further discussions between the two of us about preconceived notions and misunderstandings within the global sports industry, and we enjoyed a regular and illuminating exchange where we bridged our cultural differences through sports. 

This fruitful dialogue, in turn, made us each more attuned to rapid changes happening across a sports business becoming more internationalized by the day, and further informed our broader ambitions to turn SportBusiness into the pre-eminent global provider of sports industry content and data.

Even with our empty seat, those ambitions remain firmly in place. And while I will forever miss not getting the chance to show Kevin a more robust baseball environment such as Yankee Stadium, as we had discussed, here’s to a better 2021 with many more seats filled wherever you are. 

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