Colin O'Brien
Colin O'Brien is a Sports Consumer Insights Analyst at Mintel. Utilizing his lifelong passion and knowledge of the industry, he is responsible for researching and writing reports on the world of sports in the US.

After being shut down due to the COVID-19 outbreak, sports leagues across the globe have detailed their plans for return – with some countries having already resumed. Below is an overview of the status of the major US sports leagues at the time of writing:

NBA: Play will resume with 22-team format on July 31st
NHL: Play will resume with 24-team playoff format – no official start date (training camp set to begin July 10th)
MLS: 26-team tournament starting on July 8th
MLB: No official plan determined – if play commences, the season will be shortened
NFL: Preseason games currently on schedule to begin in August – no official changes

While each of these leagues are at different stages of their return, one thing they all have in common is that games will likely be played without fans in attendance. Fans are yearning for the return of sports, even if they are unable to attend in person. Even without fans in the stands, there are new opportunities leagues and brands can offer to engage with fans as they follow on their screens.

Fans crave behind the scenes access

One common theme among all the top-rated sports telecasts during the sports shutdown has been exceptional access to behind the scenes content. The few live sporting events that have recently taken place provide more access to the athletes themselves. Live golf charity events featured mic’d up players, offering viewers the chance to hear trash-talking and the thought processes that go into a golf shot. This access is good news for sports fans, as three in five soccer fans, nearly half of football fans, and more than two in five baseball fans wish they could get more exclusive content from their favorite teams. As sports begin to return, leagues should enhance the viewing experience by increasing access to the game-planning and conversations of players and coaches. This inside perspective also creates opportunities for brand sponsorships and integrations.

Bringing fans to the game

As sports prepare to return, leagues are exploring ways to foster connection and community with fans watching from home. According to Mintel 2030 Global Consumer Trend core driver, ‘Identity’ finds that community is a driving force of consumer behavior. Teams will look for creative ways to create connections with fans even if they aren’t physically in the stadium, as more than half of consumers feel it is important to feel like part of a community.

Source: Twitter

To create a sense of community among fans, leagues and teams are making fans be seen and heard, literally. Various leagues around the globe that have resumed play are having fans submit their photos to be used as cardboard cutouts of fans throughout the stadium. Additionally, several leagues are looking into crowd noise-generating apps that will allow fans to submit a reaction (eg cheer, clap, boo) as they watch at home, which would then be reverberated throughout the stadium. The English Premier League is also planning to broadcast live reactions of fans celebrating goals on the big screens in their empty stadiums.

Even when fans are allowed to attend games in-person, these approaches could continue to drive engagement with those not there in person and continue to foster the overall sense of community around the teams.

Finding new ad space in empty stadiums

As stadiums are now faced with thousands of empty seats and fans are watching games at home, there is an opportunity to use more areas for on-field sponsorship signage. For example, MLB is in talks to add at least six new areas for virtual advertising on and around the diamond. As most traditional advertising will continue – as deals are already in place prior to the pandemic – new virtual signage areas provide opportunities for brands looking to take advantage of the returning sports market and expected high viewership.