Remember what it like to go to a sold-out game? Waiting in line with others for seemingly forever before getting your ticket scanned, walking into the concourse and trying to avoid bumping into other people while finding a hot dog and soda, then going to your seats to check out the early scene. Maybe you left your spot for a few minutes to pick up some merchandise, pulled cash out of your wallet to pay for it before returning to your family’s seats with everybody else filling in for a few hours of excitement and sound.
For the few that have been able to attend a sporting event the past year, the fan experience is radically different. Mobile tickets and temperature checks. Contactless transactions for food, drinks and merchandise. Nobody within at least six feet of your seat. And if you are not wearing a mask, you could get ejected. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced a re-think to every facet of the sports world no matter the level of play or size of venue.
Some of the comments a year ago about the coronavirus blowing over have aged as poorly as you would think. Yet some of the analysis for how the sports world would look now looks prescient: “We in the sports industry need to start thinking of the reality that sports will not look in the future what sports have traditionally looked like,” said Penn Sports Properties Vice President Nino Vanin in April after the Penn Relays were canceled for the first time in 125 years.
The sports calendar has been disrupted like never before, but what sports mean to people has not. And while there will be times that it can feel the same, it will never look the same. The question then becomes: A year since the pandemic began, how have destinations tried to adapt?
“I don’t care what business you’re in, everybody has reevaluated how you do business,” said Matt Wilson, executive director for the Arlington Sports Commission. “Room nights will still be important, no doubt about that. But cities have understood that having eyeballs on your city as far as your entertainment districts and stadiums, that generates so much attention that a lot to folks don’t really think about sometimes.”
That’s it, right there. What you cannot get in direct economic impact, you can get in direct media attention — especially the ones such as Arlington and others who were able to hold the few high-profile events that have been staged over the past year. For destinations well-versed in planning for the long term has come the ultimate exercise; maximizing any opportunity to get publicity so when people can travel again, you have brand recognition from hosting events that fans have seen on television time and again during the past year.
Belief in the Bubble
After all, how many times did a basketball or soccer fan hear about Orlando, Florida, this past year? The home of the NBA’s much-talked about bubble and the MLS is Back Tournament at the same time, the destination received tens of thousands of media mentions. How can anybody forget the constant shots high above the ESPN Wide World of Sports complex? And since then, the city has capitalized on its hosting of MLS by being the home for the CONCACAF Champions League in December, as well as multiple U.S. men’s and women’s national team matches.
Yes, a lot of that opportunity was driven by the relative openness of Florida’s economy and the ability to host a restricted number of fans. But how many recreational basketball tournaments in the future will think of going to Orlando and playing in the same complex the NBA once did, and what could the potential long-term economic impact of that be? Jason Siegel, president and chief executive officer of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, has seen his destination get three new youth basketball tournaments coming to town this summer and while they may be at the Orange County Convention Center and not at the ESPN complex, the impressions left by the NBA still lingers.
“Invaluable,” Siegel described it. “To have the opening and closing and beauty shots looking at the Disney campus, the amount of impressions that were generated … you’ll always be able to reflect back on LeBron and the Lakers winning the championship in the Orlando bubble. They’re synonymous with each other. The amount of media attention that we earned as an organic outcome of hosting so many of these events was so positive, it set the tone for our community and the state of Florida.”
Even before the NBA bubble, the first basketball bubble was organized by The Basketball Tournament in Columbus, Ohio. Through 10 days of action, the popular summer event was able to go off without a hitch thanks to many of the social distancing and testing concepts that have now become routine for sports organizations.
And in every game for the TBT’s 10 days, broadcast on ESPN, was the repeated mention of Columbus hosting the event. Greater Columbus Sports Commission Executive Director Linda Logan said the organization has always had three main pillars for an event’s success: Economic development in the region, improving the quality of life through sports, and image building and raising the city’s profile.
“What we’ve learned over the years is that if you can check off the box for two of those three, that’s a great event,” Logan said. “This past year during COVID, that pillar of image building was front and center.”
Generating New Content
Image building and media mentions for a destination can take multiple forms: The profile of Logan’s destination not only grew during TBT, a series of YouTube interviews that she has conducted with those in the sports industry have received regional and national attention with executives from U.S. Figure Skating, the NCAA, Ohio State University and more taking part.
“I enjoy talking and learning from people — I didn’t know I would enjoy it so much,” said Logan, pointing out some of the interviews were covered not only in local media but in outfits such as the New York Times. “We had a lot of media that would call in and we became a content generator. What I’ve also found is it’s great for our board members to give them some extra mentions and get our community partners engaged.”
Engagement extends beyond your commercial partners and to the heartbeat of what makes a tourist destination — those who work in the hospitality industry, not just at hotels but bars and restaurants as well. When Arlington was able to host the first neutral-site World Series ever with 11,500 fans allowed at the new Globe Life Field, attention extended beyond the venue and into the Texas Live entertainment district and Live by Loews Hotel next door.
“To showcase a facility like Globe Life Field, Texas Live and Live by Loews, we got a ton of exposure from that,” Wilson said. “They talked about what a great setup we have on ESPN and MLB Network. We were able to feel really good about the amount of media exposure and ability to be the sole focus of the country and show off a little bit.”
Momentum continued when the National Finals Rodeo moved from Las Vegas to Arlington in the winter. The local hotel industry, initially having laid off 90 percent of its staff at the start of the pandemic, is close to fully staffed now.
“Room nights really became secondary to a lot of things,” Wilson said. “I mean this in all sincerity: The exposure for our events and our venues was fantastic but the number one thing was we were able to put people back to work. … For 10 days in the winter, we were the center of the Western sports and lifestyle world. We had people staying here for all 10 nights. What’s that worth to a hotel and restaurant nowadays?”
To that point, Siegel agrees. “We know that as we recover that you may not have the economic impact at the same ratio pre-pandemic but at the same time, it’s valuable to keep our venues going and keep our local people in jobs,” he said. “So there’s direct economic impact and indirect impacts that people may not think of. And the media value and marketing of our destination is definitely part of that equation.”
Social Media Impact
San Antonio and Indianapolis will be the next destinations to see their names in the spotlight repeatedly as the hosts for this month’s NCAA Women’s and Men’s Basketball Tournaments, respectively. A study by economist Steve Nivin, director of St. Mary’s (Texas) University’s SABÉR Research Institute, said even without capacity crowds that there will be up to $27.2 million injected into San Antonio’s economy. And both cities will have thousands of media mentions as the country tunes in for the events — something that is not lost on San Antonio Sports Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer Jenny Carnes.
“Whether you’re watching it on TV or you’re here in person watching the games in the venues, I think you’ll find San Antonio is one of the best places to host an event like this,” she said on a recent SportsTravel Podcast. “And if you only watch it on TV, come back and visit us when the pandemic is beyond us.”
That has become the name of the game for destinations. The countless shots on ESPN of the San Antonio Riverwalk will no doubt encite those who are ready to vacation for the first time in a year and want nothing more than to go somewhere where it’s warm in the summer. The same effect will be likely when the Indianapolis skyline is shown time and again on CBS, showcasing the destination’s central location and highlighting how it’s a short drive for the millions of people who want to get in a car and just drive.
“We may get 500 to 1,000 hours of Indianapolis as the center of the sports universe where you get your bumper shots of the city and (broadcasters saying) ‘live from Indy,’” said Leonard Hoops, president and chief executive officer of Visit Indy, when his city officially landed the Men’s Tournament. “This may be one of those cases where nobody has ever had this much media value.”
Media extends beyond television, of course; being able to be seen on social media is imperative for any destination. Golf has seen its recreational numbers perform well during the pandemic relative to other sports, not only because the sport is outdoors but because at the heart of the game, there’s built-in social distancing. The Wisconsin State Golf Association is trying to take advantage of the numbers of golf participants by running the “America’s No. 1 Golf Internship” promotion. The initiative is an effort to find somebody to play 50 rounds of golf throughout the state in 10 weeks — and yes, social media savvy is one of the keys for a candidate. Because what better way to attract casual golfers in the Midwest to pack up their clubs, throw a collared shirt and khakis into a bag and head to Wisconsin than by showing off courses such as Whistling Straits, multiple times a major championship host?
Ready to Return
Of course, hotel rooms will still matter going forward. So will the estimated economic impact that an event generates. The importance of bringing in recreational and youth events to a market have begun showing signs of rebirth; the latest Pulse survey from Northstar Meetings Group showed sporting events were among the few segments of the travel industry that did not stop completely in 2020. One reason may be that children have proved less susceptible to the virus, giving parents more confidence in letting their kids participate in tournaments.
“Destinations have always seen the benefits of a strong youth-sports marketing effort and now that is becoming more evident,” said Al Kidd, president and chief executive officer of the Sports Events and Tourism Association. “I’ve spent a lot of time with CVB presidents. They do understand the value of sports and they’re recognizing it more and more. They see how fast sports can come in and the impact that has on the hoteliers.”
At some point, it will be normal again to travel, to stay at a hotel, eat out for every meal and go to a sporting event with a capacity crowd. Sports bring together people from different walks of life in a way that few things can. How many times can you remember high-fiving a stranger after a touchdown, or singing the alma mater after a game with people that you’ve never met but feel like family for a few hours? Maybe it will never feel the same as it did before March 11, 2020, but it can feel like a new normal.
Sometimes, renewal is what is needed most. Until that moment of full renewal is upon us, sit back at home and enjoy watching the game at home. The destinations that host them will be hoping you take note of their cities when planning a future road trip.