The year 2020 will go down as a moment where the sports-event industry was forced to pivot. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic was felt by all stakeholders, whether they are destinations, event organizers, hotels or any number of suppliers. While there has been evidence that the industry has begun its recovery, there are still many unknowns ahead as we look forward to the calendar turning to 2021. SportsTravel asked a variety of industry leaders to give us their thoughts on what lies ahead for sports organizations, cities, venues and the sports-event industry. Here are their thoughts.

What is the biggest lesson of 2020 that you can take going forward?

“Do not take anything for granted and enjoy each day.”
Marissa Werner
Director of Sports Development, Visit Milwaukee

“I’ve seen a coming together of community. So many nonprofit organizations are dependent on their fundraising events, all of which are virtual or “reimagined” in Maine. Despite people’s heart strings being pulled in so many different directions dollar amounts have been impressive and goals reached!”
Sheila Nee
Director, Maine Sports Commission

“The AAU has hosted events since 1888 – through world wars, depressions and recessions — as well as during times of peace and recovery.  We have faced many challenges throughout our 132-year history, but none has impacted the AAU, and the sports industry, quite like COVID-19. The AAU hosted more than 25 national events in 2020 — when most in the industry either postponed or outright cancelled their events. So, the biggest lesson we’ve learned is events can still be hosted during these times – albeit with diligent application of social distancing mitigation and containment strategies. For the foreseeable future, implementing appropriate COVID-19 protocols such as limiting or eliminating spectators, social distancing, mask coverings, temperature checks, increased sanitation, and other measures will need to be integrated into overall event planning. Therefore, event operators and rights holders will have to spend additional time and energy in hosting events only where, and when, it is deemed safe to do so.

“These are unprecedented times, and like the rest of the world, the sports industry is adapting to a new reality. In doing so, we are creating a different model for how events are hosted moving forward.”
Roger Goudy
President and CEO, AAU

Event operators and rights holders will have to spend additional time and energy in hosting events only where, and when, it is deemed safe to do so.
—Roger Goudy, President and CEO, AAU

“This year has likely been the worst year ever for our industry. Adversity creates opportunity through innovation. Hotels, sports planners and coaches have managed through 2020 in a way we never would have thought possible with an exciting future ahead of us.”
Yola Marshall
Vice President, IHG

“The biggest lesson for 2020 is always be nimble and alert of your surroundings. The unknown snuck up on all of us, so being prepared for more than just the everyday routine is a must. 2020 has proven that in a world where sports have always been looked to as a solid entity that brings everyone together, even it can be turned upside down. Not just the sports themselves, but the sports industry and everything that accompanies it.  Individuals from all over are seeing and understanding how many different financial resources are involved in the sports business overall. With that being said, the NJCAA has moved a significant majority of its fall national championships to the spring of 2021 with the hopes that 2021-2022 academic/athletic year will move back into a normal trajectory.”
Christopher Parker
President and CEO, NJCAA

“Stand ready for change, pivot quickly, take some calculated risks – make something work! You can survive if you pivot quickly.”
Phil Andrews
CEO, USA Weightlifting

“Destination leaders fed too long on a 10‐year bullish market without establishing sustainable enough business practices into their business. The need to diversify income sources, the investment into building long‐term sustainability through building operating reserves during good times and innovating local owned and operated events all a part of a solution for better-run businesses. The second aspect of business we learned was the importance of repositioning of the value and performance of the destination tourism work to be one of a community asset and not simply a glorified part of city government’s tax payer services. I am proud to say that between Destinations International and our efforts, that long‐term play is underway.”
Al Kidd
President and CEO, Sports ETA

How do you expect 2021 to look different for your organization than it did in 2020?

“In 2020, once the pandemic took effect, we were specific to help our communities that helped grow Perfect Game to implement reopen and recovery strategies. Our hopes are that we expand our efforts within our current cities and expand strategically throughout the country and even more international events.”
Taylor McCollough
Vice President of Operations, Perfect Game

“We are cautiously optimistic. Every sporting event is expected to take place as planned, along with several others we had to move from 2020. It is exciting to know that the Wisconsin Center will be filled with the sound of volleyball teams cheering each other on, beginning in January, that ultimate frisbee teams will be competing for the USA Ultimate DI Championships at Uihlein Soccer Park; triathletes and their families will be enjoying the beauty of Lake Michigan while racing towards the finish line at the USA Triathlon Age Group National Championships, and the PGA will welcome the world’s top golfers to the 2021 Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits. And with all that, I am excited to announce that Sports Milwaukee, championed by Visit Milwaukee, will be introduced to the public. Sports Milwaukee is a dedicated sports development division within Visit Milwaukee that will position the city and surrounding region as the ultimate sports destination. The creation of this division builds on the incredible momentum we’ve had with sports events in recent years and will help us continue to deliver economic benefits to our community through sports tourism.”
Marissa Werner
Director of Sports Development, Visit Milwaukee

“Our organization is excited to promote current events on a broader scale — from grassroots to college to professional sports, youth to seniors! All athletes, rightsholders and venues will, of course, be adhering to Maine’s guidelines; despite current uncertainties, the outlook for the new year is encouraging. The ECHL Maine Mariners have had great support from season ticket holders; fans are eager for players to hit the ice again. The Maine Red Claws, owned by the Celtics, are primed to hit the courts once the G-League schedule is set. Portland Sea Dogs will hope to be welcoming fans come next spring. This Boston Red Sox Double-A affiliate has been creative this season offering “Dining on the Diamond,” and golf at Hadlock Field with their successful “Hadlinks” events.”
Sheila Nee
Director, Maine Sports Commission

“One thing we’ve learned from 2020 is to not predict too much what is coming, and stand ready to pivot. 2021 ought to contain an Olympic Games and several other international events which are re-arranged from 2020. Meanwhile, domestically we will have to see how quickly people have an appetite to return to in-person national events, and in-person coaching education events – even as we put in place significant safety measures. This makes it challenging to construct our budget for the 2021 year. We’ve certainly appreciated the flexibility of our city partners in 2021 in Denver, Detroit, Columbus and Calgary.”
Phil Andrews
CEO, USA Weightlifting

“While an unpopular opinion, I see 2021 being a slow transition from the extreme reductions started in March 2020 to 50 percent of our high‐water mark of 2019 in sports events and tourism activity. Until we have widespread lessening of states’ group gathering restrictions, the reinstatement of high school sports on the same schedule as existed in 2019 and the rebuilding of consumer comfort for travel and staying in hotels, our industry will be challenged. The misalignment of state guidelines for sports puts limitations on traveling for participating or attending sports events. This is particularly important to hold indoor events. A robust high school sports program in its old schedule is very important. Shifting high school sports to spring has dramatic effects on travel and tournament sports as well as college sports and its recruiting of athletes. I receive seven weekly reports on tourism, travel, sports participation and the general consumer travel sentiment. There simply are no trends that show enough to offer a differing point of view. As a result, the 94 percent of destinations who depend on hotel tax revenue will continue to be challenged.

A robust high school sports program in its old schedule is very important. Shifting high school sports to spring has dramatic effects on travel and tournament sports as well as college sports and its recruiting of athletes.
–Al Kidd, President and CEO, Sports ETA

“There is no one who wants this scenario to change. I have used a significant amount of updated data from a variety of highly reliable sources to arrive at this current point of view. However, with all the data available, there will be a time that we must take a measured risk to expand our opening guidelines to begin the long rebuilding of our industry. The data tells me we are making progress towards that, but we are just not there yet.”
Al Kidd
President and CEO, Sports ETA

“IHG implemented its IHG Clean Promise this year, that puts the focus on ensuring our guests a safe and clean stay. This program will continue to be our focus so that our guests have confidence to stay at IHG hotels. Additionally, our sports partners have a better idea of how to travel during a pandemic and have adjusted quickly, which will result in less cancellation of events and more stabilization for dates and locations.”
Yola Marshall
Vice President, IHG

What is one thing you’re looking forward to in 2021 when it comes to sports events?

“I am looking forward to welcoming athletes and spectators back into all of our first-class facilities. I am looking forward to welcoming athletes and spectators back to all our first-class facilities. I’m also looking forward to bringing back more sporting events planners to show them the UWM Panther Arena, Fiserv Forum, Franklin’s Ballpark Commons, and more — all excellent venues where they could host their next and best sporting event.”
Marissa Werner
Director of Sports Development, Visit Milwaukee

“Evolution. We need to think carefully about how to run sporting events in these times, how do we make this work for our athletes, coaches, but also our organization and the local communities in which we are hosting events. How do we ensure a comfort level with safety, how do we make it affordable for the participant and the organization? In every crisis there is opportunity, and the opportunity we have as an industry is to try new things, and progress our business models.”
Phil Andrews
CEO, USA Weightlifting

“As mentioned, 2021 financial and human capital resources will be challenged from the decrease in their main funding source. I do see more destinations exploring and implementing owned and operated sports events. The more experienced markets are exploring the expansion of sports events to include festivals, entertainment and sports business meetings to augment their o/o properties. I see CVB’s embarking into this space.

“An unintended consequence of the decrease in destination financial and human capital resources will be the challenge to continue at the 2019 levels of investment into staging events in their markets. Bid/hosting fees and grants are already being reduced, which will have a trickle‐down effect on previous and future commitments. In the spirit of bringing events back live, everyone on all side of this equation will have to rethink their position.

“I am looking forward to a gradual and safe reintroduction of youth and amateur sports. With everything we now know, it surely will look different and I do not plan to predict how it will look but am highly confident several areas will be positively affected. From league and organizational governance, participation and eligibility guidelines and the ability to track the importance and value of sports and sports participation from a near zero starting point will go a long way in positioning sports at the appropriate level in the tourism value chain. We are intending to lead a group of innovative markets in reshaping and expanding the definition of success achieved in markets through sports events and tourism.”
Al Kidd
President and CEO, Sports ETA

“Increased attendance at youth sports for participants and family and welcoming back international travel! For our hotels, having a more return to normal booking windows that can help hotels staff accordingly to support great service experiences for our traveling teams.”
Yola Marshall
Vice President, IHG

“The aspect of sports events I’m most looking forward to in 2021 is that feeling of connectivity to community sport brings — whether cheering on a pond hockey tournament or watching tobogganers fly down a hill, hearing fans get louder at the crack of a bat, yelling along with supporters encouraging runners to cross a finish line and, just taking in any good game.”
Sheila Nee
Director, Maine Sports Commission

The aspect of sports events I’m most looking forward to in 2021 is that feeling of connectivity to community sport brings.
–Sheila Nee, Director, Maine Sports Commission

Give us one prediction for the sports-events industry in 2021.

“It will return stronger than ever. I think the pandemic has shown us just how valuable human connection is and sports, of course, offer an avenue to friendship, mentorship, team building, and so much more. We’ve missed those connections so much, and we know that means there is pent-up demand for sports activities to resume. Additionally, I think the sports industry in 2021 will have a renewed focus on health and safety, and I know Milwaukee’s sporting facilities like the Wisconsin Center have made that their No. 1 priority.”
Marissa Werner
Director of Sports Development, Visit Milwaukee

“2021 will prove to be the year of the fan. From venues, teams, and leagues, to ticketing companies, concert promoters, and marketplaces like StubHub, the entire live events industry will be more focused than ever before on reducing fan friction and maximizing fan joy. This will take a lot of forms: simplified mobile ticketing, easier transfer of tickets, smoother experiences at the gate, and more robust live experiences, to name a few. The pandemic has reminded all of us of the important role that fans play in live sports. They’re more than just faces in the stands. They’re the soundtrack, the heartbeat, and the source of the energy that emanates from sporting events. As a huge sports fan myself, I’m excited to see the ways in which StubHub is already thinking about making the fan experience more seamless and maximizing the joy of live events in 2021, and I know our partners in the live events industry are also developing innovative and creative ways to put fans first. Many of us are eager to get back in the stands, and I anticipate that, when we do, it will be better than ever.”
Akshay Khanna
General Manager of North America, StubHub

The entire live events industry will be more focused than ever before on reducing fan friction and maximizing fan joy.
–Akshay Khanna, General Manager of North America, StubHub

“Innovation in technology that supports sporting events.  The opportunity in the short term to assist in COVID case management, and near term, for our event organizers to elevate the efficiency in sporting events.”
Yola Marshall
Vice President, IHG

“Innovation will increase, we’ll see new ways of working that need and can be shared between different rights holders and cities.”
Phil Andrews
CEO, USA Weightlifting

“Amateur sports governance across all platforms will begin a long and possibly painful process of change to their long‐term governance process.”
Al Kidd
President and CEO, Sports ETA

Will 2021 look more like 2020 or more like 2019?

“Like many, I am just hoping for 2021 to be better than 2020.”
Marissa Werner
Director of Sports Development, Visit Milwaukee

“I believe 2021 will gradually look more like a version of 2019 once comfort increases around travel and attending events inside venues. That’s the hope!”
Sheila Nee
Director, Maine Sports Commission

“Neither, it will look like something different! I don’t see 2021 being the same as 2019, and there are ways that we’ve found and I am sure other organizations to find new ways of working, which are more inclusive and cost effective which we will continue to do. As we move forward into 2021, we’ll see more of that across the industry.”
Phil Andrews
CEO, USA Weightlifting

“It should be a hybrid and a step in the recovery. The recovery encompasses several factors that are currently impacted that need to start to change. It is simply not enough to say that there are youth tournaments taking place in sporadic markets – there are bigger issues at work that need reconciliation for the recovery to take place.

“For example but not an inclusive list of those changes are; a vaccine and/or virus management strategies, air travel, hotel stays, TOT taxes, unemployment (including furloughs and layoffs), the change to at‐home work environment, the impact on stay at home workers managing family now as a part of their daily activities, the possible credit crisis with unpaid mortgages, auto loans, student loans, credit card debt and consumer confidence. These will take time to work through 2021 and as we gain ground in these areas, 2022 may look very bright.”
Al Kidd
President and CEO, Sports ETA

Pent up demand and the need for people to connect through sports will be stronger than ever.
–Yola Marshall, Vice President, IHG

“I think a bit of both. Pent up demand and the need for people to connect through sports will be stronger than ever and new approaches to create memorable experiences for our youth with be top of mind to support the excitement of this great industry.”
Yola Marshall
Vice President, IHG