Photo of people playing sports

Sports and live entertainment post-COVID 19

While much has been written about the devastating impact that COVID-19 has had on the $80 billion U.S. sports and live music industries, the one thing that everyone agrees on is that it is impossible to replicate the excitement of live events. As human beings, we are hard-wired to share our stories and affirm our life experiences through face-to-face interactions that provide us with a sense of belonging and community. So, while no one knows when live events with fans will return, it is safe to say that they will come back. 

Live entertainment was among the hardest-hit industries and is struggling with a number of challenges around health and safety, labor force reductions, ticket sales and refunds, event schedules and cash flow. Due to the logistical hurdles posed by mass gatherings, events with fans will be among the last sectors to reopen, and when they return, neither consumers nor the event experience will be the same. 

Fans will be cautious from both an economic and health perspective, and the way they interact in social settings has changed. The quarantine mindset may not go away immediately, and organizations will have to adapt to the temperature they operate. It will be incumbent on them to communicate what they are doing from a cleaning, sanitization, staffing, training, health monitoring, event production and operational perspective to ensure that it is safe for fans and athletes to come back. 

In the U.S., the first events to return have been televised sporting events without fans. Following the models established by European soccer leagues, these broadcasts replaced fans in the stands with cardboard cutouts and fans cheering with AI crowd noise to create a more lively and authentic viewing experience. 

One of the first televised events was the opening game for the National Women’s Soccer League, which drew a record audience of more than 572,000 viewers. The increase was driven in part by consumer curiosity about the fanless experience, but it is likely that all sports will see increased viewership when games resume due to pent-up demand for sports content.

Live events with fans will return in stages as countries around the world begin to reopen their economies. The protocols implemented in places like Shanghai Disneyland are indicators of the challenges that sports and live music gatherings might face when they resume. The theme park initially reopened with a limited visitor capacity of 24,000 people, which was approximately 30 percent of its regular 80,000 visitor capacity. In addition, the park introduced a number of new health and safety procedures including mask-wearing, temperature checks and social distancing. Additionally, visitors were required to make advanced ticket purchases and reservations and were assigned specific times to enter. 

Similarly, when live events resume in the U.S., sports fans should expect restricted occupancy, flexible season-ticket packages and social distancing requirements with empty seats or rows between themselves and other fans. Concerts in theaters, clubs and arenas may need to move to a reserved-seating model and eliminate all standing areas. And, music festivals will need to evaluate whether they can enforce social distancing, or if they can only resume operating once a vaccine is available. 

Regardless of the type of event, fans attending mass gatherings should expect to wear masks, submit to health scans or temperature checks, enter venues using digital tickets, make purchases through cashless transactions and buy pre-packed food and beverages. Since it will be costly for venues to implement new health and safety protocols, there is a good chance that several of these new practices will be permanently adopted. 

There is no doubt that the crisis has significantly altered consumer purchasing behaviors. Fans are evaluating brands through a new lens and how they are spending their leisure time has changed. Organizations will need to understand these shifts in consumer habits as they roll out new ticketing, hospitality and food and beverage offerings. 

Convincing fans it will be safe to return to events is as much about listening as it is about doing. By surveying consumers about what they can expect when returning to events, brands can gain insight into such things as how long it will be before fans feel comfortable attending events, entry and exit wait times, health check protocols and cashless transactions. By proactively reaching out to fans, organizations can not only show that they care, but can also collect valuable consumer data. 

The events of 2020 pushed brands to innovate their digital and social content. Text messaging and social media have become invaluable for athletes, artists and brands to engage with fans and show their support for communities, front-line workers, and medical personnel. When events return, digital marketing will continue to influence how organizations connect with consumers, as well as spur new ideas for how fans can experience events. 

Although there remains much uncertainty around the long-term impact of the pandemic on the sports and live music industries, brands will need to keep adjusting their messaging, narrative storytelling and creative content as they navigate the complexities of this new era.

Maryanne Lataif is Senior Vice President of Corporate Communications at AEG, the world’s leading sports and live entertainment company. She is a member of the USC Annenberg Center for PR Board of Advisors.