Continuity, Connection Key In Pandemic-Compromised Sports World

As a lifelong student of football, I remain in awe and appreciation of Tom Brady, even though I believe it was the Buccaneers’ defense (and the injury-riddled Chiefs’ offensive line) that most affected the outcome of this year’s big game.

But the real winner Sunday night was the NFL itself.  For all the doomsayers in the media, the league, in completing its season on time and without any game cancellations, has fulfilled a brand promise that will only further elevate its esteemed reputation as strong, innovative and all-powerful.  That’s pretty rarefied air, and the data backs it up.

In our ongoing Back to Normal study, nearly three quarters of sports fans have consistently indicated they follow football closely, a number significantly higher than for any of twelve other sports measured.

Of course, football has enjoyed this vaunted position for years.  But I’d maintain its allure is strengthened because it has stayed on-time and on-brand throughout the past 11 months, ostensibly impervious to pandemic-driven pivots and government restrictions that have significantly compromised nearly every other leisure activity.

And while the spectacle that is the Super Bowl is for hardcore football fans, while carefully packaged to appeal to a much more mass audience, Sunday’s showcase of course can be squeezed into the popular narrative of  “football as America” that plays perfectly into brand NFL’s aspirations.

Our most recent research shows that those Americans who strongly believe that areas of the country with high rates of COVID-19 should be reclosed, has dropped to a pandemic low of 41%.  This sentiment is particularly acute in the South and Midwest, where there have consistently been upwards of 30,000 spectators at football games this season. So football’s relatively “normal” presence also fits perfectly into what the research has been showing to be increased COVID fatigue and subscription to the comforting message that “You can trust us.  Don’t worry about what others are doing. We’ve got you covered.”

Football, while clearly at the top of the visibility heap, has not been alone in reaping the benefits of continuity and connection while other activities remained less accessible.  The research also shows some intriguing insights regarding three other sports that have seen the most significant gains in popularity over the past eleven months.  Each of these has subscribed to the same strategy of continuity and connection.  They’ve provided that needed escape from all the other noise fans turn to sports to avoid:

  • Mixed martial arts —(Up +83% in sports followed closely.) The UFC also never wavered from a “Show must go on” position.  The creators of “Fight Island,” while mocked by some in the media, demonstrated this conviction and won support from fans.
  • Horse racing—(Up +63%), the sport of kings filled a content void on regional sports networks while other sports were shut down.
  • Golf: (Up +27%) was also quick out of the gate to resume play, and simultaneously seized upon the sport’s unique positioning as an outdoor activity that combines socialization, physical activity and social distancing to enjoy a surge in participation and spending not seen since the height of Tiger Mania.