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Sports Fans Remain Engaged with Pro Athletes, in Spite of COVID-19 Shutdowns

By Keith Morelli

The New Normal for Sports

TAMPA (July 17, 2020) -- The stadiums and arenas are dark. What should be a time of exuberance for the NBA and the NHL is silent and MLB’s home stretch is stalled. Yet, sports fans are getting their fixes here and there, some by watching dated games on Hulu or watching NASCAR races that are taking place without fans in the stands.

Many, however, are getting that fix from the big league athletes who are finding the down time is a good time to engage with their fans. It was an unexpected opportunity that arose from the crisis. And, it is good business.

There may be some far-reaching changes emerging from the COVID-19 crisis that will make professional sports more relatable to the fans, according to faculty with the USF Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program and Muma College of Business supporters who are in the professional sports business.

“The COVID-19 hiatus in professional sports has offered up a chance for fans to get closer to their sports heroes like never before,” said Greg Greenhalgh, a visiting instructor with the program, which is part of the college’s School of Marketing and Innovation. “How? The players, probably bored to tears because they have been barred from attending morning shoot arounds or skate sessions or early afternoon batting practices, are interacting with fans in creative and innovative ways.”

Athletes are pursuing projects they would normally not have had time to embrace, providing fans an unfiltered look into their more personal lives, he said. As an example, Tampa Bay Lightning winger Alex Killorn created the “Dock Talk with Killer” video series, which has become wildly popular allowing fans to see him interacting with his teammates and other athletes in the Tampa Bay area while aboard his Jet Ski.

“This type of behind-the-scenes insight not only humanizes players but it gives fans even more reasons to like them, while growing the athlete’s personal brand which can be advantageous for their post-playing career,” Greenhalgh said. “And it’s keeping interest in the sport and the team alive.”

Additionally, a number of athletes have embraced esports during the pandemic, streaming their play on platforms such as Twitch and often engaging in Q&A sessions with fans while they are gaming, he said.

“That’s something that is impossible for them to do on game day at the stadium,” Greenhalgh said.

Creative Fan Engagement Opportunities

It is a time to innovate, to think outside the batter’s box to keep fans engaged, he said, and some ideas are just plain wonderful.

“Minor League Baseball is not shy about letting creative juices flow and this game stoppage is no time to abandon the efforts,” Greenhalgh said. “The Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp introduced their Game-less Thirsty Thursday promotion throughout the month of June. For $2, fans got a Jumbo Shrimp koozie and had access to concessions; all the joys of going to the ballpark minus the actual baseball game happening on the field.

“Ratcheting up the creativity, the Pensacola Blue Wahoos recently listed their stadium on Airbnb,” Greenhalgh said. “For about $1,500/night, up to 10 fans can have access to the clubhouse, batting cage and the field. The Blue Wahoos have also hosted movie nights.”

Even golf embraced an innovative spirit with the ‘The Match II’ which saw Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady square off against Tiger Woods and Peyton Manning, Greenhalgh said. What made this event unique was the level of access fans had to the players as each of them were mic’d up and there were cameras in each of their golf carts.

“We actually got to see some personality out of these guys,” Greenhalgh said.

Keeping Fans and Players Safe

As CEO of Vinik Sports Group, Steve Griggs is in charge of the Tampa Bay Lightning and Amalie Arena and several other Vinik ventures. Griggs also is a member of the Muma College of Business Executive Advisory Council.

He said the situation with the Lightning is ever changing during the ongoing pandemic. The season was postponed when the pandemic hit the United States in March and April.

“The National Hockey League is committed to completing the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoff,” Griggs said. “The NHL has been working closely with medical professionals to determine the safest way for players to return to the ice and to compete in hub cities, and the Lightning have been following all of the league’s guidelines.

“On the ice, the team was having another fantastic season before the NHL announced the pause, but we are hopeful that things will start up again soon and we can compete for the Stanley Cup,” Griggs said. “As for the direct impact on the Lightning, it certainly has been challenging but we are in the same situation as many teams and businesses across the country. We will remain hopeful and optimistic that our fans will be watching Lightning hockey again very soon.”

Keeping fans safe is the challenge for the organization, he said.

“The first priority is the safety and well-being of our fans and guests attending Amalie Arena so we certainly wouldn’t do anything to jeopardize our fans safety in any way before we welcomed them back,” Griggs said. “We will be working very closely with local officials with the city, county and state, as well as the National Hockey League, before we start bringing fans and guests back into the arena

“I think it would be fair to speculate that some fans might be hesitant at first, but I can assure everyone that we will take all precautions before we start having fans back into our facility.”

Keeping fans interested is at the top of the list, he said.

“From a marketing stand-point, we are still engaging with our fans every day, trying our best to connect them with our team during these difficult times,” Griggs said. “We realize how important a role sports plays in people’s lives, giving them an outlet of joy and entertainment, so we are doing our best to provide as much content to them as possible.

“Right now our marketing is taking on a more grass-roots feel with engaging with our fans through social media and video content with our players,” he said.” We are going to find unique ways to connect our fans to the players while they are playing in the playoffs in the hub city, whether it be through how games are televised or through our social media channels.”

Tennis Anyone?

Stacey Allaster, the chief executive of professional tennis with the U.S. Tennis Association who was named last month as the U.S. Open's new tournament director – the first woman to hold that job at the American Grand Slam tennis tournament – also is a member of the Muma College of Business Executive Advisory Council.

She said her sport might be better positioned to make a comeback than others because of the nature of the game.

“Tennis is one of the safest sports to play,” she said, “as players are inherently physically distanced.”

She noted that racquet and ball sales are up and community courts where tennis stars of tomorrow are learning the game, have opened during the pandemic and are full. That players are quite a distance from each other is how the sport is somewhat insulated from close physical contact that is common in so many other professional sports.

The association has committed $50 million to the industry for relief, recovery and rebuilding, she said.

“As the national sport governing body,” she said, “our mission is to promote tennis and we’ve launched a get-out-and-play campaign.”

The three-phase plan is to provide immediate relief, spur the industry’s recovery and help stakeholders rebuild once the crisis passes.

In March, the USTA announced the creation of Tennis Industry United, a collaboration of industry partners to assess overall industry needs and making recommendations for those industry sectors that need immediate relief, according to an association new released issued at the time. The initial goal of the first phase was to provide help for the front lines of the sport including tennis facilities, tennis professionals, grassroots tennis programs and the hundreds of tournaments, college and high school matches and league matches cancelled or suspended since the onset of the pandemic.

So, the future of professional sports, while changing, appears rather solid, said Greenhalgh, the instructor with the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program.

“As we move to our post-pandemic norm,” he said, “there is hope that these new innovative ways sport entities have elected to engage and entertain their fans will stick around.

“Though the stadiums and arenas are quiet now, it won’t last long,” he said. “Our beloved sports did not abandon us and in the end, fans are going to be rewarded for their patience with unique experiences tied to their favorite team now and into the future.”