Some of these phrases are new, some not. Regardless, each has become part of daily conversations in the United States and around the world. Some may live on when COVID-19 is only bad memory, while others will enter the category of “if I never hear that again, it’ll be too soon.” Let’s add one additional phrase to the COVID-19 lexicon, “integration empathy.” We encourage you to remember this term and share it with colleagues. It might just shape your thinking about life as we begin to normalize. We need to exercise “integration empathy” as we head back to our offices or retail locations or favorite stadiums and arenas.
As sports marketing professionals, a world without sports was impossible to imagine just a few weeks ago. If you told us we’d be wagering on ESPN’s HORSE tournament or watch the next generation of NFL legends learn their professional football fate from quarantined living rooms, we wouldn’t have believed you. With leagues beginning to open the door to a return of sports, optimism is growing. Do we dare get excited? Let’s hope the answer is “yes.” As goes sports, so goes the nation.
Our job in Sports Marketing is one of the greatest around. We’re charged with creating memorable, engaging experiences for fans across the globe. And what we’ve seen is inspiring. The joy of children receiving a meal from the Vikings Table, a food truck that delivers mobile nutrition to children battling food insecurity (thanks the generosity of the Minnesota Vikings). Being on the side of a mountain at ESPN’s X Games, witnessing extreme sports athletes with awe. Reveling at the personal satisfaction of amateur runners crossing the finish line, against all odds, at the Detroit Marathon. Wow, we miss it. But in the future, we’ll appreciate it even more.
As we begin to help our clients plan for the return of sports, our work will be forever nuanced. Fans will still be fans, but the experiences will be different. Yes, there will be die-hards immediately returning to venues they hold near and dear, watching games with classmates, family and friends. Some won’t come back at all due to health reasons or finances or priority shifts or, simply put, fear. Some may adopt a deeper passion for a team, as sports fills a much-needed void in our country while others may simply never regain their zeal.
Regardless of the reason or rationale, there will be a continuum of fan engagement with a range of amazing individuals, all with differing levels of connection. Here’s the important part. Every single individual and every resulting choice to attend live sports or not, is okay. Actually, it’s more than okay, it’s 100% correct. The pandemic has changed much, including sports. We need to support all our fans – those in the stands and those reading the box scores at the breakfast table the morning after.
As sports marketers, we need to turn this new normal into new opportunities. Engage fans and welcome them to the proverbial team. Enhance your digital and social extensions to accelerate engagement. Bring sports to smaller community viewing parties as fans warm to the thought of sitting inches from a stranger again. There’s much we can do in this evolving world of sports engagement.
Brainstorm the next big idea in activation and bring it to life.
Celebrate its success, realizing that we offered opportunities for many fan categories—especially those resulting from the pandemic.
Let fans know that wearing masks is welcomed, if not encouraged, during the recovery period (or however long it takes for everyone to “feel” normal in crowds again).
Be patient as we wait in, six feet apart, lines for a beer. Or how about paying it forward and pre-purchasing a beverage for the next person in line?
Plan and develop strategies that are more diverse, encouraging a new world of sports fans.
But most of all, we need to exercise integration empathy, welcoming all fans, present or present in spirit.
If we fail, other entertainment opportunities will win them over.
The challenge starts today. It’s time to exercise our creativity like never before. We’re eager to witness the response from teams and leagues across the country and ready to respond accordingly. We need to get aggressive with our marketing plans while remembering to exercise integration empathy. We need to welcome everyone, regardless of their personal level of engagement. We need to broaden our reach and not expect conformity.
As a final thought, let’s remember the words of Nelson Mandela as he reflected on the power of sports.
Let his words inspire your way forward.