While the scale and impact of COVID-19 have been unprecedented, professional sports leagues have learned that some past lessons and strategies still apply. Four CFOs of major sports leagues made this point when they gathered recently for a KPMG forum on operating during the pandemic and developing their approach going forward.
“Going back to the recession in 2009, we learned that once people start having a change in habit from what they’re used to, it’s really hard to get them back,” one CFO stated. “We were very concerned about being away from fans because getting them back would be hard.” This was a common sentiment in the group, and all discussed their attempts to engage with their fan base despite the lack of live competition.
While the leagues focused on maintaining relevance, they also had to establish plans for safely launching the return to competition. COVID-19 “shattered some of those illusions of stability,” creating opportunities to take risks and pursue initiatives that internal politics or hardened ways of thinking might have prevented in the past. Still, one long-standing strategy — teamwork, within and across organizations — remained the foundation to success, even as the pandemic required new ways of thinking.
New operations structures and logistics presented multiple challenges in decision-making. To overcome these challenges, CFOs prioritized operations and engagement.
Maintaining flexibility with schedules and ideas and obtaining total alignment across all stakeholders were fundamental aspects of returning to competition. As national, state and local health policies evolved, sports leagues had constantly changing schedules. For leagues with teams in non-U.S. countries, the challenges with scheduling and hosting events only multiplied. Most agreed that being flexible with not only the schedule but also the format of competition was important for returning to action.
Clear communication was also crucial. The leagues wer able to successfully navigate the crisis by being honest and forthcoming about the challenges they faced, developing and communicating a consistent mission from the top and banding everyone together toward a common goal. This streamlined process will pay dividends on how the industry as a whole will operate moving forward.
Engagement and Relevance
When asked what the most significant positive development has been since the onset of the pandemic, one executive answered that it was how all stakeholders came together to ensure that fan engagement remained high. Furthermore, the common goal of overcoming the challenge brought people closer together, despite being physically apart.
Early pivoting into creating and enhancing digital experiences allowed one league to preserve revenue streams and maintain fan engagement at a time when events weren’t being held. One unforeseen benefit was the ability to give fans an avenue to know athletes beyond the field. All these factors combined to help this executive understand how important continued investment and innovation in fan engagement can be in promoting the game today and in the future.
Another executive highlighted how innovations in broadcasting led to working with sponsors in different ways. For example, using split screens to broadcast games allowed one league to split sponsors across different geographic regions, which created new sponsorship and branding opportunities.
The pandemic challenged previous methods of decision-making. At the height of the pandemic, leagues needed to be nimble and make decisions based on limited information. While they didn’t get every decision correct, one executive commented, “We got a lot right. As a leadership team, you realize what you can accomplish under the most difficult circumstances.”
To arrange an interview with KPMG’s Shawn Quill, please contact Mike Alva. You can read more KPMG insights into the sports industry here.