What Does COVID-19 Mean for Athletes and Sports Fans?

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When any shared major event occurs, we can often recall exactly where we were. These events and memories can be negative or positive. Think about where you were when your favorite team won a big game. Unlike past events such as 9/11 or the Challenger disaster, the coronavirus is viewed differently depending on where we live and how we were personally affected. For some, it happened very quickly. For others, it occurred slowly. However, if there was one singular COVID-19 event that many people inside and outside of sport seem to recall, it was the moment the NBA started shutting down. People began to notice the magnitude of this virus. Perhaps at that moment, the majority of the population started to see that the virus was more serious than they initially thought.

Much of the discussion over the past few months has asked what COVID-19 shows us about our society, and sport was certainly not different in this regard. As we no longer had sport to entertain ourselves and as we began our binge watching of various shows (Please . . . no more tiger shows!), we have also started to ask about sport’s return.

If sport returns, does it mean things will be like they were before the NBA canceled games and that society itself will attempt to return to something of a new normal? Has the virus shown us what sport is about in terms of athlete welfare and guidelines? With no fans in the stands, how will we experience it?

In terms of athlete welfare, there are two areas that result in much discussion: college sport and professional sport. The first question when it comes to college sports seems to be, “If athletes truly are ‘students first’, are NCAA, conferences, and schools still expected to be on campus, even if their school isn’t in attendance?” What has COVID-19 shown us about the athlete’s role on campus? Are they there for enrollment management, entertainment, and revenue generation? Or are they truly there for the educational opportunities that athletic scholarships provide? 

Professional sports present a new set of discussions. In the past the NHL and the NFL faced widespread criticism when it came to concussion protocols being ignored. What has the coronavirus shown us about athlete welfare? Many of the initial discussions about re-starting professional sports didn’t involve any of the players’ associations. What is the athlete’s role in professional sport? Are they mere commodities?

Despite these challenges, there have been some guidelines for re-opening introduced. Some of the mandates for coaches involve running practices with no gathering and with spacing of 6 feet between individuals. Those instructions certainly would provide any coaches involved in contact sports a most interesting practice session! Even in a training session, how do you keep athletes from contacting each other in a contact sport?

Whether the virus has revealed what sport is about or not, there will be some leagues moving forward. Given sport’s entertainment value, how will it be consumed? If there are no fans in the stadium, does it have the same atmosphere? Some of the closed-door soccer games that were held in Europe were quite eerie without the usual roar of fans.

In our sport finance and marketing classes at EKU, we often discuss how sport managers use the many forms media to help with ticket sales. As a result, even prior to the coronavirus, we saw the rise of the media consumer. In February 2019, EKU Marketing Instructor Kevin Cumiskey and I presented on this shift at the Global Sport Business Association’s annual conference (further irony is that this conference was held on a cruise ship!). In this presentation, we quoted Matt Ritchie, associate director of season tickets and inside sales with the Cincinnati Bengals. Ritchie noted that getting spectators is a battle between “the price of the experience versus the cost of convenience.” There is no doubt the price of the experience may have a new factor now, which is not measurable by any Fan Cost Index (FCI) calculation.

How much are sport fans willing to risk to go see their favorite teams and players? If sport spectators are going to stay home and still want to consume sport, how can sport teams capitalize? Is it through virtual stadium-like technology? Will teams offer special packages to media spectators where they can pay for special access? In a time where there is much speculation, sport is clearly not much different than society as a whole. In both cases, we are faced with many questions, and we hope to have more answers over time.

By Joel Cormier, Ph.D, coordinator of the EKU Online Sport Management Program

About the Author  

Dr. Joel Cormier is an associate professor in the EKU Department: Exercise & Sport Science. He has taught several courses exploring the role of sport in American society. He is also head coach of the EKU Men’s Club Ice Hockey Team.


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