We’re Back… But Are We?

A week ago, I attended my seventh Major League Baseball game of the season, but it was markedly different from the previous games I’d attended.  For the first time this year, there was someone not among my group sitting next to me.  He informed me that he had received a COVID-19 vaccine, and graciously asked if I minded if he removed his mask.  Having been vaccinated myself, I was fine with it.

While the ballpark I was in has yet to open at full capacity, I learned later that this marked the highest single game attendance for the season.  All good signs, but in many ways, what I experienced was a microcosm of what our latest sports fan research is telling us.  People are out and about as they haven’t been for 15 months, but there’s a lingering “COVID hangover” that has implications for sports and leisure marketers.

The Good

Beyond the readily available public health data, and the continued loosening of  COVID restrictions throughout the country, our behavioral and attitudinal data is also hitting positive milestones.

In late May, 86% of sports fans had either resumed a market basket of favorite pre-pandemic activities or were now willing to do so without any further assurances required.  That’s the highest we’ve seen over the past 15 months.  As a point of context, this percentage was 37% last April.

Nearly four in ten of those who had attended sporting events in the year before the pandemic also did so in the past month.  That’s up from 17% in March and 22% in April.  More than half expect to do so within the next two months, an all-time high and up 13 points from March.

We are also seeing all-time lows in percentages of sports fans who feel they have to make more difficult decisions about discretionary purchases and those who consider themselves to be more budget-conscious than they were two years ago.  The percentage of sports fans who feel much more stressed than they did a month ago is less than half of what we saw in late 2020.

The Not-So-Good

That aside, there are headwinds that have me questioning the sustainability of this positive data.  In our qualitative research, people speak of a persistent awkwardness in large public gatherings and social settings.  A lack of clear guidance has people questioning whether they should wear masks or shake hands.

Nearly half still see COVID as the most important issue facing our country today, and remarkably only one in four strongly agree with the sentiment that “From my personal standpoint, the pandemic is over.”  Few are bullish about the medium-term outlook for the economy, with inflationary concerns rampant.  A majority feel that government stimulus programs have disincentivized people to look for work, exacerbating a tenuous labor market.  Most telling is that while in December of 2020, a fairly partisan 50-50 split were optimistic about the future of our country, five months later, we see only 39% of the country feeling this way.

In summary, we may be out more out than we have been in 15 months, but stable “normalcy” remains elusive.