Sports business staff grapple with coronavirus world

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Posted at 9:13 PM, Mar 20, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-20 21:13:57-04

CHICAGO (AP) — The idea came together while Dan Migala was working on proper hand-washing techniques with his 5 1/2-year-old son, William.

William is a big NBA fan, so they talked about how he needed to wash his hands for 24 seconds like the shot clock in pro basketball. Dan then asked William about how they could teach more kids how to wash their hands, and William suggested getting a mascot involved.

Dan Migala, a longtime sports marketing executive, knew almost immediately it was an idea worth pursuing amid the coronavirus pandemic. He called his basketball clients, and an NBA team made plans to put together a video of its mascot washing its hands for its social media channels.

With the sports calendar in question more than ever before — the NBA and NHL have suspended their seasons, golf, tennis and auto racing are taking a break, and Major League Baseball isn’t sure when it will get started — the sports business world is confronting several challenging issues beyond the potentially considerable loss of ticket, advertising and other forms of revenue.

It is searching for ways to stay engaged with fans without its traditional content sources. It is looking for opportunities to help its communities during traumatic times. It is preparing for what might be a completely different world whenever the games resume.

“We’ve never seen anything like this. Nobody has seen anything like this,” Minnesota Twins president Dave St. Peter said Friday in a telephone interview with the AP. “You know, sports isn’t the most important thing in the world. We certainly recognize that life can go on without it. There’s things that are much more important that our country, our world is dealing with.

“But I do think sports leaves a void for people and I think it’ll play a really critical role in helping the world heal, but certainly in America, I think baseball will play a role in helping this country heal.”

There are very few places to look for guidance. The 1989 World Series was delayed after an earthquake hit the Bay Area in Northern California. Sports hit the pause button after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Hurricane Katrina had a dramatic effect on sports in Louisiana for years after it flooded New Orleans in 2005.

Andy Dolich was the vice president of business operations for Oakland at the time of the 1989 earthquake. Asked about what lessons from that disaster might be applicable today, he emphasized the importance of coordination, communication and leadership.

“I’d also say, where you can, and I’m also starting to see it in just individuals, what can you do?” he said. “I mean life isn’t normal, but we still have our televisions, we still have ability to communicate.”

Sports properties have more ways to communicate with internal and external audiences than ever before, and they are using them in a variety of ways.

The Boston Red Sox posted coloring sheets for fans to print out for their kids to work on at home. The Carolina Hurricanes tweeted warm messages at other NHL teams. The Charlotte Hornets shared video of center Cody Zeller learning how to play guitar. The University of Nebraska started a Husker Homework series for kids, with the first entry focusing on Eric Crouch’s playing career at the school.

“From an external side of things, we’ve looked at it as two elements,” said Garrett Klassy, a senior deputy athletic director at Nebraska. “One is how do we give back to the community during these times, and then No. 2, without sports, how do we keep everyone engaged?”

The 73-year-old Dolich, who has his own consulting firm and teaches in Stanford’s school of continuing studies, said engagement is an important focus in the absence of sporting events.

“If it was me, especially here in the Silicon Valley, I would want to have a group of the smartest people around with sort of a brainstorming session of ‘OK, here’s what we have. We don’t know all the answers. We’re going to be out of playing any games for a long time. What can we do to engage, more than we’re doing now?’” Dolich said. “Whether it’s virtual reality, augmented reality, et cetera. ... How can we do that, and I think there will be some breakthroughs, because people will push that.”

Like pretty much every sports organization, the Twins are working on their social media plans. St. Peter said they likely will hold some town hall-style chats with team leadership and season-ticket holders or sponsors.

“It’s not easy, but I also think there’s some small things you can do that I think can allow a fan to feel like they’re still connected,” he said.

Asked about what sports properties can do right now while the calendar is empty, Migala focused on five areas: unite the community, create smiles and remove fear, make valuable digital inventory, embrace new media and technology, and prepare for the return of games and events.

“I think you’re seeing teams put a lot of focus and energy on being part of the broader solution and maybe even for a moment in time be teammates with their community,” Migala, the co-founder of 4FRONT, a sports marketing firm, said, “but then also being really ready when that bounce back does occur and the return back to normal, that they’re there for them.”