Wait of the World
A long with the ennui catalyzed by the coronavirus pandemic across sports, there’s a new industry anthem: “The Waiting is the Hardest Part.”
Even to those hardened by tragedies with the scope and impact of 9/11 or a local natural disaster; the economic malaise of the 2008-09 recession; and the strikes and lockouts which have shuttered every big stick-and-ball sports property at one time or another, this situation is unique.
“The toughest part is dealing with the uncertainty,” said NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum, whose 20-plus years at the league have included 9/11 and two lockouts. “It’s like 9/11, because the world changed quickly and we didn’t know what it meant moving forward. … There are so many things you can’t control in a crisis. If there’s a learning it’s to stay calm and focus on the things you can control. That’s how you instill confidence to your staff and stakeholders that we’ll get through this.”
As San Francisco 49ers President Al Guido was cautioning team owner Jed York early last week, “I can tell you what I believe, but no one knows anything for certain now.” Guido was selling for the Dallas Cowboys during the 2008-09 recession, a time during which the team opened a new $1.3 billion stadium — which went without a naming-rights deal until 2013. “This one’s way more global and with some unknown as to when things get back to normal, not that we know what normal will be,” Guido said. “But I’m optimistic when we get back to so-called normal, we will do so faster.”
There’s a different dynamic this time: With labor stoppages, 9/11 or the recession “there was animosity — ‘we got here because of them,’” added Guido. “This time, I am sure this will eventually be a rallying cry, as something we got through together as a country. … So I’m optimistic, to the degree I feel better than I did in ’08-09.”
Until then, it’s an industrywide exercise in scenario planning for those working at the usually busy intersection of sports and commerce.
“I’d be less freaked out if we knew when this was going to end,” said the head of one of the largest sports-marketing consulting practices. “Even if they said ‘Don’t come back to work until 2021,’ we could handle that. Since we don’t have a date, we’re just building one model scenario after another, every day.”
The last time sports went dark
One of the major debates after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks was whether to hold sporting events in a show of defiance, or to postpone them in deference to the victims and the tragedy. The latter sentiment won out unanimously in the U.S., stopping approximately 180 games and events, and even in the U.K., where the 2001 Ryder Cup was postponed a year. The SEC was the lone holdout until later that week when it too called off its football games, a misjudgment later attributed to poor communication with other major sports properties. Unlike with the lengthy postponements due to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. sports returned to action the following week.
HOW LEAGUES REACTED
NFL: The NFL postponed its Sept. 16 slate of games, 15 in all, making them up at the end of the regular season, the first week of January, and pushing the playoffs back by a week.
MLB: All MLB games through Sept. 16 were postponed, six days and 93 games in total, according to Baseball-Reference.com. The missed games were played at the end of the season, meaning the playoffs started later. As a result, the 2001 World Series was the first in history to stretch into November.
MLS: The final two weeks of the 2001 MLS regular season, 10 games, were canceled and not made up.
College football: In Division I-A, 58 football games in total were postponed or canceled the weekend after the attacks. Some teams made up the games, while others found new opponents for games tacked on to the end of the regular season.
PGA Tour: The World Golf Championships event at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis was canceled and not made up, with prize money donated to charities.
LPGA: The Safeway Classic at Columbia Edgewater Country Club in Portland was canceled and not made up.
NASCAR: The New Hampshire 300 — set for Sept. 16 — was postponed until Nov. 23, during a chilly Thanksgiving Week.
Indy Racing League: The Chevy 500 at Texas Motor Speedway was moved from Sept. 16 to Oct. 6.
Florida Panthers President/CEO Matt Caldwell was a senior at West Point during 9/11, after which he served deployments in Iraq and Kosovo. After the 2008-09 recession, he worked for Goldman Sachs, a firm widely cast as the lead villain during the worst financial slide since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
“Clearly 9/11 was a rallying point for us in the military, and this may eventually be the same — a cause that unites,” Caldwell said. “People get quiet, even paralyzed during these kinds of times, so from Gen. [Barry] McCaffrey [then a West Point instructor] I learned that people want to hear from you quickly, and as a leader you need to be visible — more so now than usual.”
From his Goldman Sachs experience, Caldwell found “reputations and leaders are made during these times, but you can also quickly lose them,’’ he said. “So we’ve done things quickly like committing to pay our part-time [arena] employees through the dates of the [NHL] regular season.”
Ron Skotarczak, MSG executive vice president of marketing partnerships, joined the Garden during the 2008-09 recession. The NBA went through a lockout that disrupted the 2011-12 season, and the NHL did the same the next season. So after the NBA’s decision to suspend its season on March 11 triggered the cessation of sports across America, Skotarczak’s email to staffers referred to lessons he learned from those crises.
“It’s a time to lean on those values that were sharpened during those situations,” he said. “You learn from difficult, stressful situations way more than when everything’s going well.”
Steve Raab, president of the regional sports network SNY since 2007, said these are the times that produce innovation.
“I once read how there is more surgical innovation during wartime than any other,” he said. “It doesn’t make war OK, but those are benefits that carry forward. Each crisis delivers its own innovations that get woven for the better into everyday life. You do really learn which of your staff and business partners you can count on. We’ll come out the other side and be better for the struggle. I believe that more with each crisis we get through.”
For now, both marketing and sports have been moved to the discard pile. From businesses faring well to those deep in red ink, inertia is standard. TBC Advertising, Baltimore, has distance-learning companies and car retailers as clients; neither is spending.
“Until there’s some kind of definitive and expert answer on when this thing potentially will pass, I wouldn’t expect much [marketing and advertising] activity,’’ said TBC President Howe Burch. “Clients need to get a pulse, and right now, sports are not important.”
Having seen sports lift the American psyche after cataclysms like 9/11, there’s optimism that it will again serve as a crucial part of the re-entry. Lacking a timetable, there’s a lot of people humming that Tom Petty song.
“We’re hearing ‘wait and see’ more than any other phrase,” said CSM North America CEO Dan Mannix. “But we all know that when this blows over, people will want to get together more than ever, and sports will be at the center of all that.”
What they’re saying
Executives reflect on the similarities between the current pandemic and past tragedies.
Now: Co-founder, 16W Marketing
On 9/11: Same role
“The obvious similarity right now to the situation after 9/11 is the fear factor. While sports ultimately enabled the country to heal, there was then, like now, fear of the unknown. Relative to the 2008 recessions, the obvious similarity is the immediate, and potentially long-term economic impact. The 2008 impact was significant, but this total shutdown of all sports at all levels is unprecedented. While the recovery from 2008 lasted for a couple of seasons, the upheaval from this pandemic could spell disaster for quite a few organizations and last for a much longer time.
“We have been busy helping our corporate client Quest Diagnostics manage their team partnerships. We are reaching out to the partners of our celebrity talent and offering to have them act as voluntary public service ambassadors for the brands they represent. We are also looking closely at our financials and trying to plan for the worst and hope for the best.”
Now: Co-CEO, Roc Nation
On 9/11: NASCAR VP of corporate sponsorships
“It is the fear of the unknown here that is creating a lot of anxiety, and it is a totally different dynamic with a rippling effect. This is global. Shortly after 9/11, we were open for business. There wasn’t a groundswell of layoffs. This is affecting 144 countries. 9/11 was horrible. Globally, commerce didn’t stop. The rippling effect goes so much further. We need to take a leadership role here. Now is our time to further define ourselves as a purpose-driven industry and give back.”
Now: CEO, Houston Dynamo and Houston Dash
On 9/11: VP of business development for the Phoenix Suns
“It certainly has some eerie similarities. It did create an awful lot of anxiety around the globe. It created a new normal in the short term. Businesses took a hit. It took time for everybody to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and start all over again, which is what’s going to be needed here. At this point we’re not sure exactly when that is going to be, but everybody is certainly hoping it’s sooner rather than later.”