When Crowds are Forbidden, does a Virtual Alternative for Sports Have Legs?

When will we hear the roar of the crowd again?  In light of the pandemic, many are looking to sports as symbol of the return to normalcy during this unprecedented time, and for some sports, a virtual alternative in the near-term may have legs.

More than 7-in-10 (72%) Americans follow at least one sport, either college or professional, with the largest contingency following football (49%), basketball (37%) and baseball (36%).

Unfortunately, fear is still king (three-quarters of Americans say the amount of fear is sensible given the seriousness of the pandemic and 70% are worried about their personal health), and a mere 6% of Americans would be willing to attend a sporting event immediately once the restrictions are lifted. Just 2-in-10 say they would return within 30 days and nearly 4-in-10 expect to wait more than 6 months.

While more than half of fans (52%) say they miss watching sports on TV and half (50%) miss attending sporting events in person, one-fifth of Americans (21%) say there is nothing that would make them feel safe to attend a sporting event again.

What might fill in the gap in the meantime?

When sports fans were asked to rank their preference with 4 alternatives for watching sports (assuming available), more than four-in-ten ranked (41%) live sports with no fans in the arena as their top preference. Watching old events with additional modern commentary or watching stars play their sport virtually was ranked first by about two-in-ten. Appetite for familiar versions of things is strong: the least preferred alternative is watching new sports that can be played in a socially-distanced way.

A couple of sports buck the overall trend: fans of F1 and The Premiere League (which have already begun turning to e-sports, giving players devices instead of cars and soccer balls) are embracing the new normal, and are as likely (or slightly more) to prefer a virtual version of their sport with their favorite stars as a live version with no fans.

Sports leagues in the U.S. and around the world are working tirelessly to figure out how to build the excitement and experience of watching sports, without stadiums and arenas packed with fans.

  • The re-runs of historic sporting events like The Masters and NBA Finals are reaching record audiences.
  • 6.3 million sports fans tuned into Michael Jordan’s documentary series The Last Dance, which relays “The Untold Story of Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bull,” setting a record for a documentary airing on ESPN.
  • The draft, which was held virtually for the first time in league history, was hosted by NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who announced every pick from his basement. According to information from the NFL, the average audience during the Round 1 of the draft was 15.6 million, which was a 37 percent increase over the average audience from last year’s (11.4 million).
  • The NBA says it’s developing a streaming service with Microsoft that will “transform” how fans experience the league, leveraging personalization, AI and gamification.
  • Turner Sports is testing live two-on-two competition events, with a Tiger-Phil rematch which will also involve Peyton Manning and Tom Brady.
  • NASCAR fans won’t have to wait much longer as NASCAR will return to action at Darlington Raceway on May 17, kicking off a packed two-week schedule announced Thursday. The schedules and procedures for these races will be crafted with the intent of keeping competitors safe from COVID-19. The revised schedule has a pair of Wednesday races, fulfilling fans’ longtime plea for midweek events. Fans will not be present at the May events.
  • ThePGA Tour announced Thursday that it hopes to be back in action in June. The tour plans to play the first four scheduled events beginning with the Charles Schwab Challenge — without spectators.

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