Professional and college sports will change when they return – maybe for the better

Filling Bankers Life Fieldhouse again will depend upon the Pacers rebuilding their business model to show fans they are loved for more than their cash.

Just as Americans respecting social distancing guidelines will hasten a return to normalcy, professional and collegiate sports leagues, franchises, and programs need to use this time  to ensure their continued profitability and existence.

Meetings and teleconferences are being held at the headquarters of teams and leagues all over the country trying to mitigate the longterm damage the Coronavirus pandemic may cause.  All levels of fan engagement must be stripped to the studs and rebuilt.  The previous methodology used to extract cash from fans is just not going to cut it anymore.

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Fans, even ardent fans, are reassessing their priorities.  As Americans “hunker down,” they are making decisions about expenses at an entirely new level.  The decision to renew season tickets was difficult before anyone had heard of Coronavirus, but now that we have recalibrated priorities and discovered new interests, the weight on the side of the scale that prompts us to spend our money elsewhere – or simply stash it in savings – has increased.

With an almost complete absence of live sports to watch live or on TV, and nothing but Russian ping pong to bet on, fans are reading, doing puzzles as a family, and learning how to play guitar.  Instead of watching others participate, we are doing that ourselves.

If there are any weaknesses in the customer interface at arenas, ballparks, or stadia, they will become magnified when fans return.  Whether it’s safety from the virus, concessions cost, or staff friendliness, every aspect of the fan experience will be scrutinized by those who choose to invest their hard-earned cash in an excursion to a single game or a season’s worth of events.

Teams will strip down every moment for fans to make sure they feel appreciated and not preyed upon or exploited.

When I decided not to renew my Chicago Cubs season tickets, there were several factors in play.  The first was the annual 20% increase in price.  The Cubs relentlessly squeezed me because they had a significant wait list for season tickets.  Greed had no short term penalty, so up the prices went.

Second, the perks became less special every year.  In 2015, the Cubs asked if we would like to come down on the field for batting practice.  That was cool for the four of us.  I received periodic emails asking if I would like an additional experience – a Wrigley Field tour or some small piece of swag.  In 2017, all that interaction and opportunity was gone.  The Cubs won the 2016 World Series, so who needs to make the boob in Indianapolis feel a little more special?

The Cubs indifference made the decision to not write the check for 2019 very simple.

Teams facing this crisis need to avoid the perception that they are fueled only by greed.  Fans need to feel their love for a team is reciprocal.  Teams need to adopt a service-based philosophy, rather than use every opportunity to separate the last available dollar from every business leader, father and mother, or lonely fan who make the choice to invest in a night out.

Nature always finds a balance, and this virus is an unwelcome part of that process.  Prior to the pandemic, people spent ridiculous stacks of cash on frivolous entertainment options.  That money helped sports become a great sources of wealth for players, coaches, executives, owners, and sports media talent and executives – perhaps too much wealth.

This pause in our normal lives has provided a window for well-run companies to tear down their operations and then rebuild them into more responsive, friendlier versions of themselves.

Whether professional and collegiate sports thrive behind the same popularity they enjoyed just five weeks ago when the world came to a sudden stop after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive depends upon everyone associated with their operations contributing to a fan-friendly, less greedy business model.

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