The Game Must Go On

Screenshot of speakers at webinar

In recent months, the sports industry has had to endure a dramatic transformation due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All mainstream sports teams in the NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA suspended or postponed the start of their seasons until it was safe to resume, leaving many fans disappointed. Like all businesses, the sports industry had to quickly rethink their strategies to engage fans and keep games playing on.

Since it may be some time before the end of the global pandemic, what will be the sports industry’s new normal? In an effort to navigate this changing landscape, the University of Delaware’s Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics brought together experts from Lerner’s faculty and alumni during the Sept. 17 Lifelong Lerner Webinar Series. These discussions will be broadcast monthly and you can register for this series here.

When the major leagues got the OK to proceed with their seasons, they still faced a number of obstacles. The NBA and NHL made it mandatory for players to quarantine and play in a bubble with piped-in crowd noises and cardboard cut-outs of sports fans in the place of empty arena seats. The MLB and NFL got off to a rocky start. Although the league administrators allowed teams to travel to cities for games without fans, the onset of both seasons were put on hold due to coronavirus outbreaks in training camp. Once the seasons resumed, games were postponed because of subsequent outbreaks. In all cases, teams relied heavily on live streaming and televised broadcast of games to keep fans interested and revenues flowing.

Moderator Sarah Williams, assistant professor of sport management at the Lerner College, spoke with UD Lerner alumnus Jim Donofrio ’91, vice president of sponsorship sales and strategy for NBC Sports, as well as Professors Matt Robinson and Tim DeSchriver to share their views on where the sports industry will be headed next.

“[This pandemic] has shown the need for creativity and to think outside the box,” said DeSchriver, who is an associate professor of sport management at the Lerner College.

The panel first weighed in on the ways in which the sports industry is rising up to meet the wavering needs of its stakeholders, which, as explained by Donofrio, include the viewers, business partners, sponsors and advertisers of sports entertainment. It is now the focus of the industry through viewing platforms, whether big-screen television or social media, to capture the diverse interests of the audience. However, this pandemic has complicated the production of entertaining sports content.

“The challenge we’re having right now is: How do we capture the viewers?” Donofrio asked. “The biggest area that we’re focused on is user-generated content, content that our fans are creating that we can then highlight, as well as leveraging our talent and our celebrities to tell the story.”

The conversation about the “new normal of sports” then shifted to the matter of job prospects in the industry. Williams welcomed the panelists to share their predictions of business trends that will likely take shape and advice for undergraduates to prepare for these adjustments.

Robinson, professor of sport management and area head of sport management at the Lerner College, expressed that for students entering the workforce right now, it is essential to possess marketable talents like creativity and innovation.

“I think even though we are physically separated, there’s even more of an emphasis these days on communication skills,” DeSchriver added. “You must be an effective communicator, whether it’s via writing, emails, texts or orally and being able to communicate over the phone.”

The panelists agreed that the business world at large is undoubtedly fluctuating to accompany advancements in technology and to maneuver the state of the economy. However, they said, these conditions can benefit candidates who have a willingness to work. In the words of Donofrio, “it’s not all doom and gloom.”

“The 20-year-old student has such an incredible opportunity in front of them, and that’s in a number of ways,” Donofrio continued. “If you are a revenue generator, there will be jobs available for you. You’ll probably get in the door. Once you’re in the door, it’s all about what you do.”

The panel addressed how the COVID-19 pandemic has also impeded on the agenda of college athletics. As such, many fall and winter sports sessions have been canceled indefinitely, and high school athletes are still vying to figure out how to impress NCAA recruiters.

To help student-athletes become aware of the terrain they are up against, the panel provided their firsthand observations as colleagues of college sports recruiters. The professionals maintained that high-ranking academics and visibly exceptional leadership and interpersonal skills will help a high school student-athlete to be deemed appealing to an NCAA recruiter.

“One of these is observational areas, and I cannot emphasize this enough: [The high school student-athlete] has got to be a total package,” said Robinson.

The panelists agreed that high school and college athletes have a story to tell right now, as do undergraduates who are set to embark on a career path in the wide world of sports.

“Life right now is a test of courage and commitment. Is it a wall or is it a mountain to climb?” Robinson asked. “This will present you with a question of whether or not this is what you truly want to do. This is toughening you up, so use it while you can.”

Upcoming Lifelong Lerner Webinars:

Thursday, Nov.19, 4 p.m. EST – Helping Restaurants Pivot During a Pandemic
Register here: https://udel.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_NW7YZgDvT9qP2xBlAGnTPg

Thursday, Dec.17, 4 p.m. EST- Weathering the COVID Storm – Keeping Small Businesses Afloat
Register here: https://udel.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_NW7YZgDvT9qP2xBlAGnTPg

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