Remember live sports? They’re coming back! Sort of.

Now, granted the PGA started playing weeks ago. Major League Soccer is also playing some kind of mini-tournament thing. And of course the UFC never really stopped because, well, I’m not totally sure why. Maybe they’re more concerned about finding a cure for cauliflower ears?

Of course, as a Canadian, when I say sports, what I really mean is hockey. And as you no doubt know, the NHL post season play-in tournament derby starts August 1st

But the NBA is also on the cusp of firing back up – with a Canadian team ready to defend the title it won just over a year (seems like a lifetime) ago. 

Speaking of champions, the Winnipeg Blue Bombers may yet get a chance to defend their Grey Cup title. The hub-city model currently being proposed for the CFL seems a little far-fetched given how important gate revenue is for that league, but maybe they can pull it off. To be honest, I’m secretly hoping the league doesn’t start until 2021 so the Bombers can successfully defend their title by forfeit.

On the other end of the spectrum, the NFL, the most profitable of the four major leagues, seems certain to start on schedule in September, and will gladly (and profitably) play without fans if it has to.

Why does any of this matter – you ask?

As an advertising agency we regularly invest in well-suited sports properties on behalf of our clients. That includes of course developing spots and buying time during live broadcasts on TV and on all streaming platforms. But we also develop in-game activations, social media cross-marketing programs, and a variety of other sponsorship partnerships.

And because of this – and because many of our clients have seen their sports partnerships derailed during the pandemic – we’re paying special attention to how these different Return to Play scenarios pan out – and what specific impacts they will have on the sports properties we have traditionally invested with. 

Accordingly, and in no particular order, here are the three things we’re most interested in as pro sports get set to make their big return.

1. Ratings

Back in late spring, the NFL draft set a record for viewership. To be clear, we’re not talking about a game, or even a practice! We’re talking about 55 million predominately North American viewers so starved for sports content that they tuned in to watch three days of college draft coverage. If you’re looking for the moment when sports league executives decided to go for it and attempt the impossible task of rebooting their respective leagues, well that had to be it. 

But if that wasn’t enough to convince the leagues to make a go of it, then surely the Netflix documentary “The Last Dance” about the Chicago Bulls’ final season did. Its launch was reportedly pushed up from a planned late September release to April to capitalize on a pent-up sports content demand.  The series, which was released mostly one episode at a time, became somewhat of a cultural phenomenon, dominating (Zoom) conversations and (virtual) water cooler debates throughout the spring.

Anyway, there’s little doubt that league executives have their fingers crossed that they can deliver this type of historic reach (for their sponsors and broadcast-rights holders) every night for the duration of the playoffs. 

Indeed, in the NHL’s case, it’s no wonder that they’ve actually added what’s essentially an additional series to the playoffs. It’s certainly not “to ensure fairness” among teams. Instead it’s all about generating content in a vacuum – and they’re betting the appetite among the sports viewing public and even casual viewer will be insatiable. 

If I had to make a prediction, I’d say, who knows!? (In fairness, that’s usually my prediction for anything.) 

With respect to the NHL, it’s likely that the initial set of round-robin and play-in games involving 24 teams will draw a big batch of eyeballs. But if we get into late August and the Florida Panthers are playing the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Eastern Conference Final on a Tuesday afternoon in Toronto, well, I don’t even know if Don Cherry would watch that.

2. Atmosphere

The COVID-19 experience, in many ways, has been filled with flawed assumptions. One for instance was that when school was cancelled my daughter would be in good hands with me teaching her math. 

(As an aside, did you know there’s a “new math”!? You don’t carry the numbers anymore, now it’s sort of like a confusing game of Xs and Os where at the end everyone cries.) 

But I digress.

When it comes to sports, there’s a whopper of an assumption going around right now that certainly the leagues and broadcasters aren’t talking about (publicly), but that everyone will have a chance to make a judgement on real soon. And that is, can sports even exist without fans in the stands? 

Think about it. What’s the most memorable thing about Jets playoff hockey? No, it’s not repeatedly squandering 3-1 series leads. Those aren’t memories. Those are nightmares.

Answer – it’s the Whiteout. By a mile. It’s what the broadcasters promote. It’s what most of the brand activations tie themselves to. It’s what the social media feeds clog up with. And it’s entirely built using fan-featured content.

Speaking of (lack of) fans, former Bomber Head Coach Paul LaPolice once described playing road games in the near empty confines of the Rogers Centre (formerly Skydome) as challenging to get up for mentally, because it was “like playing in a mall.” And increasingly, the view that sports aren’t sports without fans in the stands is gaining momentum among many who have been writing about it lately.

My prediction – people will tune in to watch their teams play initially – until they get knocked out (probably after having been up 3-1 in the series), and then, it’s hard to say. And the casual fan (which broadcasters rely on to drive up viewership during playoffs) may not be as interested because without adjustment the broadcast simply won’t be able to deliver the usual post-season spectacle.

That’s why in an effort to keep their audience coming back, it’ll be up to sports brands and broadcasters to be inventive and innovative, and to shore-up what’s sure to be a diminished atmosphere.

3. Broadcast

How’s that for a segue? (Almost like I did a content outline for this article before I just sat down to write it. Hint: I did not.) 

For NHL hockey it sounds like NBC will be providing the feed for all the Eastern Conference games based out of the Toronto Hub, while Sportsnet will provide the feed for the Western Conference games being played in Edmonton. It will be interesting to see if there’s a difference in approach between the two.

Truthfully, one would hope that the broadcasters, networks and leagues are looking at this new dynamic of fan-free sports venues as a great opportunity to be innovative.

Something as basic as a “fan view” camera — made possible because there will be no spectators in the stands — would be intriguing and add a different perspective. Also, in theory, a broadcaster could run a track the length of the concourse to follow the play in real time – sort of similar to the submerged camera set-up for Olympic swimming.

Helmet cams, player biometrics meters, hell, someone dig out the Fox puck! Anything that brings some level of added value to the operational side of the broadcast one would hope is being considered.

But beyond the technical stuff, sponsors, advertisers and broadcasters should have a field day coming up with creative executions and activations aimed at enriching the fan/viewer experience. 

Obviously traditional in-game brand activations won’t be possible – but there’s no reason these can’t be reworked as virtual activations accessed via smartphones at home. Finding ways for fans to engage with each other – whether they’re properly socially distanced on opposite ends of the couch or physically distanced on different ends of the country – via some kind of engagement execution facilitated through social channels is a no-brainer. And if it takes off, it could represent tactics that could keep viewers engaged and tuning in over the longer term.

Advertisers should also be finding ways to be relevant. God help me if it’s just the Safeway Score and Win challenge followed by the A&W guy ad nauseam for the next 3 months.

Rather, brands should lean in and leverage the current circumstances and situation to create a resonant and memorable appeal. For instance, imagine a tongue in cheek campaign authored by the league itself built around the idea that “unlike a hockey arena, there are places that might actually be better without a lot of people.” Think of the grocery store, your kid’s doctor’s office, a family reunion, or even the COVID testing centre. (Too soon?)

My prediction – the NBA and its sponsors will do a lot of this kind of advertising. Having fun with their players and their fans is part of their brand DNA. The NHL mostly won’t – at least not until they catch up during the 3rd round of the playoffs when only 4 teams (likely all from the U.S. sunbelt) remain. 

Big Finish

Final prediction: there’s really no way to know how this is going to go. (See, I did it again.)

My sense is that the leagues that have demonstrated a willingness to be inventive and creative (the NBA and MLS) may be better equipped to roll with whatever comes next compared to those with a track-record of aggressively embracing the status quo (MLB and NHL.) 

Also, don’t forget, it’s possible that some or all of the leagues that fire back up may never actually complete their respective post seasons, for any number of reasons.

My recommendation, if you have money tied up in an ad buy or sponsorship – or even a giant bulk foam finger order – make sure your contract terms – especially the cancellation policy – provides for some flexibility, just in case something bad happens (which incidentally is the global motto for 2020 I think.)

That said, despite all of this, we know many professional leagues are at least going to attempt a restart next week and so, in the (silent) words of Rob Lowe, who famously wore an “NFL” hat to the NFC Championship game last year for fear of ticking off either Green Bay or San Francisco’s fan bases while out promoting his new show: “Go Sports!”