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Fans decide when and if live sports return to normal

When fans will be comfortable attending live sports

As leagues and officials plot the return of live sports, fans have their own set of criteria for when they will be ready to restore their attention. For now, their interest and the money it generates looks like it will come back, but leagues may have to work harder than they think to restore it.

Leagues struggle to adapt

With the world entering a second month deprived of major sports, leagues are struggling to remain relevant by adapting to the new world order. For example, ESPN and NFL Network will still broadcast the NFL draft on April 23 through 25. However, the Las Vegas event has moved to ESPN’s Bristol, Connecticut studios, where commentators will maintain social distancing, and Roger Goodall, the league Commissioner, will introduce the first round from home.

The Professional Darts Corporation has launched the PDC Home Tour. Top darts players will compete against each other from their homes. There will be 32 days with nightly group matches between four players, followed by a second-round between the 32 group winners. The league has already run into problems. One top player was forced to withdraw because of an unreliable broadband connection, and another because he couldn’t stand the regulation distance from the dartboard in his house.

But these innovative approaches are only temporary adjustments until the real action can resume. So, when might that be, and will audiences follow?

When will fans come back?

While public officials think the NFL season can start on time in September, fans may have a different opinion. Seton Hall Sports Polls asked what U.S. adults would do if sports leagues resumed play before a vaccine was available for the coronavirus. 72% said they wouldn’t attend games, 12% said they would if social distancing was maintained, and 13% said they would feel safe in going.

In other words, it might not matter when league officials decide it is time to resume play. Fans have their own set of criteria for when it is safe to return.

Fans filling time with other activities

In the meantime, sports fans are finding other things to do to fill the time they used gaming and game spending increase during shelter-in-placeto spend with their sport of choice. Nielsen reports sports fans have boosted their consumption of news, drama, and movies. Verizon says gaming on its network jumped 75% after people started going into lockdown. The story is the same around the world, with between 57% and 71% of people in the U.S., the UK, France, and Germany playing more.

eSports is one of the places sports broadcasters have turned to try and satisfy their audience’s desire for action. Fox Sports kicked off a season of eNASCAR, which at least initially delivered solid results. The first race drew an audience roughly one-third of a regular NASCAR race. Fox is doubling down on eSports to try and bring in the hardcore MLS fans. It will broadcast five episodes of an eMLS Tournament in partnership with FIFA 20, starting on April 19, with the championship happening on May 17.

Whether eSports, gaming, and video entertainment permanently replace some or all the time fans spent with their sports, we will have to wait and see. However, there are some crumbs of hope for the live sports industry.

Sports revenue sources waiting it out

eSports are not yet delivering a consistent audience that live sports advertisers are ready to embrace. According to Michael Neumann, EVP and Managing Partner at Scout Sports & Entertainment, a division of Horizon Media:

“Most of the advertisers we’re working with are taking their dollars and parking it to the side while they wait for the leagues to provide some sort of direction on when live sports will return before they make any decisions on how to spend that money.”

It also looks like gaming isn’t winning much of the money that fans would ordinarily spend on their favorite sport. Though gaming has increased dramatically, the amount people spend on it has grown much less. In the U.S., 70% say they are spending more time gaming, but only 39% say they are spending more money on it.

NBA being proactive in winning back fans

The NBA is working to make basketball games even more enjoyable when play resumes. The league organization is working with Microsoft Azure to create an NBA app to enhance the live game experience. The multi-year agreement will see the pair leveraging AI to create personalized live game broadcasts enjoyable anywhere the viewer chooses. The new app will roll together out-of-market live games with real-time data overlays, alternative audio and video streams, and gaming elements. The NBA wants the enhanced app to be available for the start of the 2021/22 season.

Why it matters

Sports held a unique place in the world of video entertainment before the Coronavirus crisis.

However, it is becoming clear that fans will decide if and when leagues return to their previously exalted status.

Fans have filled their sports time with streaming, gaming, and eSports and may not be willing to give it all back.

To win back their time and the money it generates, leagues will need to work harder than they think.


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