Embrace the New Normal: How College Programs Can Bring Value and Engage Fans During an Uncertain Time

June 10, 2020Where We Stand: LEAD1 COVID-19 Report

The COVID-19 pandemic has generated much uncertainty for collegiate sports and the sports industry generally. This uncertainty must be embraced as the new normal for the foreseeable future. Nimble collegiate athletic programs will seize the opportunity presented by, and address the challenges of operating under, the new normal. Collegiate athletic programs need to assess their existing fan, sponsorship and media relationships and consider alternate ways of maintaining and improving these relationships. Thinking outside of the box is the critical driver of success. The implementation of innovative initiatives will also serve to mitigate the degree of cost-cutting that collegiate athletic programs have undertaken or are facing.

No collegiate athletic program is the same as another program. The strengths and weaknesses of each collegiate athletic program need to be assessed and thereafter customized alternatives developed. Opportunities abound for collegiate athletic programs to develop alternative advertising, sponsorship and media rights packages, as well as creating new innovative programs targeted to create fan interaction with the team, and its players and coaching staff. These new initiatives can be expected to soften the impact of collegiate athletic programs losing out on traditional revenue streams associated with game day such as ticket sales. Further, while the COVID-19 pandemic will be temporary, the new initiatives need not be. 

The absence of fans in stadiums is perhaps the most visceral anticipated change in the way games will be played. Germany’s Bundesliga has resumed the playing of soccer games in empty-stadiums with socially distant goal celebrations and the addition of artificial fan noise from the stands. One club has taken advantage of the situation with a positive fan-centric measure by allowing fans to take pictures decked out in fan gear and pay a small fee to ensure a seat in the stadium for a cardboard cutout likeness. This move is an interesting prompt on how teams could make use of empty stadiums for creative revenue gain and fan engagement.

Plainly put, empty seats mean more space. Collegiate athletic programs have the ability to fill seating areas with whatever creative ideas they can envision and should consider the advertising potential. Entire seating areas could be wrapped in large advertisements for the team’s biggest sponsors. Without fans in the stands, collegiate athletic programs may also consider expanding advertising on the field through sales of additional real estate for sponsorship space. Programs could also consider putting the names of fans or high-contributing donors on the field in exchange for donations, representatively putting those fans on their field since they cannot be present in the stands. In negotiating media rights for live games in empty stadiums, teams may be able to find additional rights to offer from an empty stadium that they otherwise might not have been able to provide.

Collegiate athletic programs should also consider how they could offer additional luxury or premium experiences. Although the circumstances of a season amidst a pandemic are not ideal, they do result in potentially unique game experiences. Because fans may not fill a large number of seats, allowing the attendance of a few important donors kept in socially distant seating could provide a rare and even historic experience. The ability to be a part of an elite group of spectators in the stands during a game could be attractive to certain donors. Memorabilia from these empty-stadium games also could be a coveted piece of the team’s history that fans could acquire. Luxury or exclusive experiences could also be successful in extending beyond the field, including tours and behind the scenes experiences for small groups or individual donors. Visits to training facilities, locker rooms, or areas of the stadium that are usually closed to fans could engage fans in a new way and provide unprecedented access to the teams. During a time of social distancing, it may even be preferable to provide these tours and behind the scene experiences over social media live platforms or other video broadcasting software because they allow direct connection to the teams and events and ensure that fans do not lose connections with their favorite teams.

Broadcasting live over social media provides a range of opportunities both open to the public for fan engagement and set privately for premium experiences. During the current cancelled or curtailed seasons, professional athletes have taken to social media independently with videos of workouts and untold stories of their experiences, while also appearing on official team feeds for fan-driven discussion. Coaches and teams could provide fans with plenty of engaging content through social media platforms such as Instagram Live to provide behind the scenes footage, live broadcasts from the stands at a game, or sit-down discussions with the players and coaches. These unique new platforms could be sponsored by advertisers to help support the programs. On a smaller scale, using video broadcasting like social media platforms, Zoom, or Skype for private meetings with donors could also result in revenue-generating experiences. Teams could engage small restricted groups for private Q&A sessions with coaches or players, or even for broadcasts from the stands during a game. Personnel involved from professional leagues all the way down to high school sports teams have offered various types of training sessions via video software while social distancing. Schools may want to consider offering an exclusive experience of training with coaches and staff over video that could be accomplished by subscription or one-time enrollment fee.

While the return of sports during this pandemic raises issues, it is a not a question of if live spots will resume, but when and how.  When collegiate athletic events resume, collegiate athletic programs should be ready to offer fans and sponsors opportunities to participate and reconnect through traditional experiences (as tailored for pandemic concerns), as well as new platforms.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 edition of Where We Stand: LEAD1 COVID-19 Report.