Six months into the COVID-19 pandemic and it’s clear that the business of sports has shifted for good—as in permanently, and for the better. It is no longer possible to ignore human issues for the sake of “mindless entertainment,” NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith said Thursday during Day 1 of the Sports Capital Symposium, the joint virtual event put on by Monumental Sports & Entertainment and SportTechie.
As 2020 has unfolded in twists and turns, the multibillion-dollar sports industry has been thrust into uncharted territory, influencing everything from how players effect change by using their platforms to how sponsors spend money.
SPORTS CAPITAL SYMPOSIUM: Day 2 Is Taking Place on Friday, Sept. 18
Consider just how much has changed . . .
In 2016, Colin Kaepernick began protesting racial injustice and police brutality by kneeling during the national anthem before games—a stance that led to him being effectively blackballed by NFL teams owners. That same year, WNBA players were threatened with $500 fines if they wore their uniforms inside-out or if they wore anything in support of Black Lives Matter. Now, in 2020, the NFL’s end zones feature the phrase “End Racism” and WNBA players are wearing the name of Breonna Taylor on the back of their jerseys (among other outward displays from other leagues that are promoting social justice values).
Athletes young and old, male and female, are now using their collective voice for good.
— Sam Acho, NFL player
Sports are rapidly evolving into a more empathetic industry in which activism is not only accepted, but prioritized—and it’s being led by players.
“The season is bigger than just winning games and winning a championship,” Tina Charles, the 6’4” center of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics, said at SCS. “It’s very imperative that we seize this time and turn it into something radical and transformative.”
Smith, who oversees a union that represents more than 10,000 active and former NFL players, put it even more bluntly: “Anybody who asks us to divorce ourselves from our communities, or somehow separate ourselves from who we are, are not real fans.
“If it’s not significant, if it’s not meaningful, it’s just mindless entertainment,” he added.
After sports were shut down during the early stages of the pandemic, many in the U.S. were calling for the leagues to return to give the country a morale boost—or at least a distraction during a difficult and isolating time. But there’s an ugly side to entertainment, Smith pointed out, because it sometimes enables people to turn a blind eye to what’s happening in their communities. With sports having gone on hiatus, fans were forced to pay attention to larger societal issues—and players seized the moment.
“Remember when Colin Kaepernick was taking a knee a few years ago protesting injustice that he saw, and everyone was burning his jerseys? Well, it seems like the tide has changed,” said Sam Acho, an NFL linebacker who is currently a free agent. “Athletes young and old, male and female, are now using their collective voice for good.”
The season is bigger than just winning games and winning a championship. It’s very imperative that we seize this time and turn it into something radical and transformative.
— Tina Charles, WNBA player
When sports returned, the pandemic forced some of them to play in bubbles, which forced an even greater awareness about player and fan health. From the NHL’s bubble in Edmonton, Canada, league commissioner Gary Bettman joined SCS and gave the opening keynote. “Everybody’s doing great, even psychologically,” he said of the playoffs, though he added that it’s been “tough to be away” this long, especially for the players who left young children at home.
“This has really shown a level of commitment, passion for the game and professionalism, which I never doubted, but is absolutely fabulous to see,” said Bettman, who added that the league is cognizant about the need to continually “do better” when it comes to supporting diversity and social justice.
A large focal point of SCS was focusing on new revenue streams for teams and leagues amidst the pandemic.
In terms of growth, Bettman said that sports betting revenues have yet to materially offset the loss in gate revenues from a fan-less season. Gates sales are “a little over 50% of our revenue—sports betting isn’t going to make up that gap,” he said. “However, to the extent it makes us a more valuable media property because more people are tuning in? That’s important.”
Bettman added that he doesn’t plan to retrofit NHL arenas anytime soon because of the coronavirus and said he believes that on the other side of the pandemic “our arenas will be full again.”
“That’s really what sports is about: bringing people together in large numbers to share a common exciting entertaining experience,” he said.
Anybody who asks us to divorce ourselves from our communities, or somehow separate ourselves from who we are, are not real fans.
— DeMaurice Smith, NFLPA executive director
Meanwhile, Capital Arena, the indoor home of the Washington Wizards and Washington Capitals, opened the District’s first sportsbook in August and did $9.1 million over 69,000 bets in its first month, according to DC Lottery data released on Thursday. Jim VanStone, COO of Monumental Sports & Entertainment, which owns Capital One and all the professional teams that play there, said MSE wants the sportsbook in downtown D.C. to become “a destination location.”
The sportsbook is accessible not only to the people attending Capital Arena’s 200 annual events, but also for people casually coming off the street for entertainment or dinner. MSE expects it to bring an additional million people into the arena each year, in part fueled by third-party events that utilize the space on “dark days” when there are no core sporting events. Fans returning to the stadium can also now expect to find sports betting kiosks checkered throughout.
Gaming was another recurring theme during Day 1 of the Sports Capital Symposium. In addition to sports betting, there was a lot of conversation about esports and prediction games, which are often free-to-play and offer non-monetary prizes.
Jason LeeKeenan, the chairman of Tally—a prediction gaming platform co-founded by NFL quarterback Russell Wilson that runs games based on current events and sports—said games like these will be “ingrained into sports culture” in the future.
“People won’t be able to imagine watching live sports without having some sort of predictions experience,” he said. It’ll “be as common as seeing the scoreboard.”
Meanwhile, NBA 2K League managing director Brendan Donohue said the league saw new doors open by having its events aired on ESPN during the sports hiatus, and it is currently building out European and Asia Pacific divisions.
“We really were able to lean into that and it exposed us to a totally new audience,” he said. “Imagine a 50-team league across the globe. That’s our goal.
“I will say COVID is going to force us to think how to do those differently, but it’s not going to stop us from doing it.”
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