On Wednesday sports in America made their triumphant return! “The MLS Is Back” tournament declared that, well, the MLS is back.
This follows the June return for most of European soccer, starting with the Bundesliga and continuing to the English Premier League, the most popular global sports league.
Yet not all is sunshine and roses. The leagues are back…but the fans aren’t. And won’t be for the rest of the summer, if not longer.
So how should we think about Coronavirus and Sports? Well let’s bust out the EntStrategyGuy’s patented Covid-19 impact system to analyze it. We look at impacts on Supply, Demand and Employment (if relevant). We also try to separate what we know from what we don’t (and is usually guessed at).
(Curious for my “moderate” take on how Covid-19 will impact the rest of the entertainment industry? Here are my takes on…
If you’d asked me in 2012 how sports teams made their money, I’d have told you extremely confidently that they made their money by signing huge TV sports rights deals. That’s what I kept reading in the news, after all. Then one day a famous NBA GM spoke at my school and disabused me of that notion in a way that’s stuck ever since. And understanding that explains the trouble for sports leagues over the next year or so.
Yes, the headline buzzy numbers about multi-year deals for TV rights are indeed true. Sports rights for TV have grown by about 4-5% per year for the last two decades. (Math here.) That’s tremendous growth! And hence why everything related to sports has also grown in value. (The price of teams, the salary of players, the size of sponsorship deals.)
But it isn’t the entire story. The second or first biggest chunk of revenue for nearly every sports team in America (and I believe globally) is ticket sales. That’s fans attending live games. It depends on market size, but not the way you think. Larger market teams like the Lakers, Dodgers, Golden State Warriors, Dallas Cowboys and Knicks have even more of their revenue as a percentage from local ticket sales than smaller market teams. This is because seats to sporting events are a constrained inventory for a popular product often in very economically wealthy areas. That’s a recipe for high prices.
This explains why the sports leagues, initially, were more willing to postpone the season than play games in front of empty arenas. Empty arenas meant permanently lost revenue and the NBA, NHL and MLB desperately wanted to avoid that happening. (This article says all live revenue is about 40% of the NBA’s total revenue.) They waited as long as they could, but now it’s clear sports in front of fans aren’t happening this year.
And since it’s better to get some revenue than no revenue, the sports leagues–sans the NFL–have figured out how to bring competitions back without fans. (Good for them!) This means sports in America will be back on live TV soon enough. (Technically the PGA is already back in the US and as I said above the EPL and other European leagues are already back.)
Still, this leaves the situation with ticket sales unresolved. The owners and commissioners desperately want that other huge chunk of revenue back.
Forecasting when fans can return to arenas or stadiums is fairly difficult. It’s worth comparing them to theaters because the different situations imply different economics. With theaters, I remain convinced that there are measures that can reduce transmission dramatically: have everyone wear masks, keep a checkerboard pattern in design, have a reduced congestion plan when leaving. (This is definitely a minority take not shared by public health officials, so take it for what it’s worth.) Moreover, with a new film, a theater can flex it onto many, many screens simultaneously, meaning you can support a checkerboard pattern while potentially achieving mostly the same volume of tickets sold.
This is not the case with sports. If you’re an NFL team, you only get 8 home games. NBA team gets 42. MLB gets 424 (it feels like). And so on. You can’t surge it into more stadiums or games. (The very thing that drives up prices in the absence of coronavirus hurts the sports leagues here.) Moreover, unlike theaters, stadiums are filled with choke points where people will crowd. (You’d have to have folks arrive 2 hours early or more to avoid crowding at ticket entrances.) Not to mention, a checkerboard seating pattern won’t make sense because you’d have to rearrange nearly every season ticket holder. Yikes.
This means that to have sports return with live fans, you are much closer to needing a full therapeutic cure or vaccine before sports can safely resume.
When will that happen? Well I don’t know. And it’s the biggest variable–and potential hit to the bottom line–for sports teams. However, if you assume we will one day cure or eradicate coronavirus, the supply problem will eliminate too. In the meantime, I expect players, owners, stadiums and all adjacent dependents to take a hit to their salaries and values.
As for the “Bubble” situation, I’m reasonably confident the leagues will find ways to play the games in largely safe ways for the players. It will evolve and folks will get sick, but the revenue draw is too high to avoid.
Here’s the good news: all signs point to sports fans clamoring for the return of their favorite sports. The Michael Jordan documentary did blockbuster ratings for ESPN. Same for the NFL draft. Even golf is breaking ratings records!
Everyone is trying new things during this quarantine. Some habits may change. But abandoning sports doesn’t look to be one of those things.
Of course, the flip-side to the above supply scenario is that maybe fans will abandon live sports for fear of the coronavirus. This is a risk, but feels low probability. First, sports will likely be constrained by having a therapeutic or vaccine before they return. Unlike theaters, which will test audience demand for their product, I don’t see live sports in arenas this year.
Second, I don’t think coronavirus has turned us into a world of shut-ins. If anything, folks want to flee their homes more than ever. Admittedly, this is my opinion. It’s an unknown and I could be wrong. A pessimists could say it’s as likely fans flock back to stadiums as they abandon them in perpetuity. Where specifically it lands on that spectrum is up in the air.
As fro demand for live-sports on TV, again I expect it to be high. If folks are in perpetual shut downs with concerts, live-sports and many outdoor gatherings prohibited, live sports rights should be widely consumed. Not to mention, the slow down in TV and film production has meant fall will be light on new content. Sports can instantly step into that void.
I do see lingering pain the labor market related to stadiums staying closed. Entire ecosystems are built around attending live sporting events. Everyone associated with working that from ushers to security to restaurant staff will be hurting until sports return.
Even the players, as I mentioned above, will likely see a lot of pain. As long as salaries are a percentage of basketball related income, then the players will see cuts if fans can’t comeback in 2021.
Overall, I’m less worried about the impact on the economy from sports compared to either TV/film production or movie theaters, both of which employ a lot more people.
Bonus: The Breaking of the Bundle?
The one variable that is neither “supply” nor “demand” is whether the absence of live sports will cause a further deterioration of the cable bundle (and maybe satellite bundle in Europe) that props up the current exorbitant sports rights fees. I’ve seen this thesis floated out there fairly commonly over the last few months. (If not directly, then via the rhetorical question headline.)
If prices to be paid are any indication, the answer is no. The prices for live sports rights haven’t decreased even during coronavirus–they’ve continued to go up actually–meaning sports will definitely be the anchor propping up cable and satellite providers in the near term. I’d recommend considering this mostly wild speculation. Folks have been predicting the end of TV since the beginning of this decade. And it’s still kicking.
However, the true test will be the upcoming earnings season. After all, the bundle won’t die because companies let it, but because customers finally opt out. That will be the true final test.