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Volume 23 No. 28
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Forum: Cleaning out the 2020 summer notebook

In speaking to an NBA team’s business operations staff recently, I was asked about the mindset of the sports fan and the impact of COVID-19 on fandom. I understood the audience wanted optimism, but it’s complicated, and something we’ve given a lot of thought to. I immediately thought back to a conversation I had with a small group over lunch, where we discussed our own sports habits, and one person said, “It may be sacrilege, but I’ll say it: I just haven’t missed sports that much.” While this person is in a small minority, it’s our greatest fear.

As I shared with the NBA team, over the past two weeks, we’ve conducted detailed surveys of more than two dozen fans — many of them season-ticket holders and avid followers — to see how they viewed sports and their likelihood of attending games in the future. Their responses, while non-scientific and more anecdotal, were promising to me. There was a true sense of loss and yearning for sports, and little sense in a decline in overall passion or moving on to new habits or interests. There was some praise for how sports organizations are handling this crisis and communicating with fans. But, not surprisingly, there was major aversion to attending games. Bottom line: While team CEOs are lobbying hard to allow for some number of fans to attend games as soon as possible, and while many teams I’ve spoken with have been pleasantly surprised with their sales for next year, absent a vaccine, the casual fans will be a hard sell, and even a core of the avid fans are reluctant to return for now.

I found Mark Cuban’s interview with David Marchese of The New York Times earlier this month to be among the more insightful discussions I’ve heard from a team owner recently. Cuban hasn’t been keeping a low profile, and good for him. We need ownership to be out front during a crisis when they have insightful and educated points of view — whether you agree or not. Cuban has spent a lot of time on issues, such as the role of government, business policy, the state of health care and, of course, sports. He talked about his own awakening after the death of George Floyd, saying, “It changed me.” He also suggested fellow owners understand the importance of Black Lives Matter on their customers or it will affect their business, saying, “There is going to be consequence if they don’t recognize what business they’re in. If you aren’t believed in some level in your community, you’re not going to have intense fans and you’re not going to have a business.”

Tennis has been my release of anxiety and stress over the past few months. I’ve found a player on the local men’s team at Queens College in Charlotte — Jan from Poland — who is a very strong player and generous with his time and teaching. During a recent workout, we talked about the dearth of tennis and about watching World TeamTennis. It was a good reminder that we shouldn’t overlook the successful efforts of the WTT under the leadership of Carlos Silva. Their three-week bubble season at The Greenbrier in West Virginia worked very well and was the only tennis for many starved fans all summer. WTT set viewership records on CBS and received more mainstream press coverage than ever. While most of the attention will be on tennis returning to New York City this week, what Silva and his team accomplished deserves to be lauded. 

Finally, a Forty Under 40 alum continues to thrive, as Liverpool FC promoted Managing Director and CCO Billy Hogan to CEO, replacing Liverpudlian and lifelong fan Peter Moore, who will leave the club and return to the U.S. Hogan officially starts Sept. 1, and it marks a continued growth trajectory for the 45-year-old, who joined Fenway Sports Group in 2004 and was a member of our Forty Under 40 class in 2012. Hogan has assimilated well with Liverpool, never an easy task for American executives at a Premier League organization. But he’s balanced a keen understanding of tradition with a progressive business mind in overseeing the team’s strong commercial efforts. Hogan has largely operated below radar and kept a low profile. He’s quiet but is charming and quick with a laugh. Liverpool is in a very good place, so now Hogan will try to maintain the organization’s incredible success — both on and off the pitch — but will do so in a far more high-profile position before the passionate scrutiny of the Reds fans.

First Look podcast, with Abe's comments on our fan survey package, thoughts on NASCAR’s Bubba Wallace, and more on Moore and Hogan, at the 25:28 mark:

Abraham Madkour can be reached at amadkour@sportsbusinessjournal.com.