A Whole New Ballgame: Sports In A Post-Coronavirus World

By: Meet in Place content team

Major league baseball is set to return early July with ghost games. Peter Sachs, NY Mets corporate partnerships manager explains why the first pitch signifies the beginning of summer, what games may look like in the future and why an audience is crucial.

Sports and exercise have long been linked to good health, both physically and mentally. We all know that cutting sports and exercise out of your routine can lead to weight gain, lack of energy and poor health. But what happens when the entire world is cut off from professional sports? According to Peter Sachs, corporate partnerships manager for the New York Mets, the effects are far reaching. “It’s not just an economic effect, it affects the individual players, the teams, the fans, municipalities and seasonal workers”, he says. “It touches everybody”.

Why is having no sports to watch so hard right now?

“Sports is escapism, that’s why people love it, it gets you out of the routine of your normal life, gets you out of thinking of whatever you have at work. You follow a storyline. It’s a story that  is like a living movie, every season is a movie that’s happening in real time, it’s entertainment, it’s escapism, it’s just longer.”

What is the significance of baseball in particular?

“A lot of people see baseball as the start of spring and summer. We connect these things, we have switches in our head that start flicking. Hope springs eternal when the season starts; there is no record, everybody is 0-0. Even if your team stinks and you know they stink, you’re at first place for a day so there is that kind of feeling of hope and newness. Then you get to the days of mid-July, the dog days of summer when teams are grinding, a lot of life lessons are melted into each other, especially when you grow up in a society that values sports as much as we do, you get those things ingrained in you. It becomes a routine that is part of you, and to not have that is difficult for a lot of people.”

Our focus is trying to get in front of clients and building that relationship, and there's no better way to do that than in person. We can't do that now. We have a lot of bubbly personalities so for us to be on Zoom calls is completely different.

What are the effects of not having sports as usual right now?

“It’s not just the mental aspect. The economic effects of it are grave and the ripple effects are far-reaching. Not just for the teams themselves, but for the municipalities and cities in which these things occur. You think about minor league baseball, in the smaller towns, it really trickles down. Or college sports; look for instance at Syracuse New York, there is not a lot going on there, if the college teams can’t play, that means they can’t bring 20-30 thousand people in that building, that’s a huge loss for that community. They already shortened the draft to five rounds from forty rounds. It’s a whole class of people that are missing out. You may not get to play major league, but you’re still getting drafted, going to a small town like Burlington, Iowa to play for a team for two years. That little town in Iowa has 80 or so games a year, that’s life experience for the player, kids getting to watch baseball, people who are working there during the season. It’s not just economic, not just the individual players, it touches everybody.”

How has the crisis affected your relationships with partners and sales efforts?

“Sports is unique in that it’s not something you need, like office supplies. People don’t talk to us if they’re not interested in sport. Our focus is trying to get in front of clients and building that relationship, and there’s no better way to do that than in person, whether it’s at a game, a batting practice – when you’re asking folks to spend 6-7 figures, you need them to like you. We can’t do that now. We have a lot of bubbly personalities, talkers, so for us to be on Zoom calls is completely different.”

Our biggest challenge is to try and convert and retain revenue with assets that might not have been top of mind initially. In addition, dealing with folks that in this economy may not have the extra dollars to do that.

How has the sports industry been affected by the crisis?

“Sport is something you go to to escape, it’s live entertainment, it’s no different than live concerts or broadway. In terms of what we intend to do for the people who come to see us, it’s all the same. We also have elements that touch on hospitality. We’re not selling the hospitality aspect directly, but we have guests and entertain all the time. We have between 120-140 sponsors a year, probably 80%-85% of them have a hospitality element to them, so they often use us to entertain their clients, their employees, and then we entertain potential clients all the time. In batting practice, during the game, in trying to get them to come on board with us. So we’re just constantly entertaining people. Not being able to do this is a big hit to what we do.”

Do you expect ghost games to be successful?

“Short-term this will work. In baseball, unlike other sports, each team negotiates the broadcasting rights to the games with the regional sports network. Larger market teams like the Mets own the network so they are making the money on the ads. The smaller market teams sell the rights to the games and the network sells the ads. Naturally those deals are a lot smaller, it’s a smaller market with less eyes. So the smaller teams in baseball don’t get the same cut from television that the bigger teams do. In football for instance it’s all split evenly since the NFL negotiates the television rights as a whole, not by individual teams. For football, ghost games can work, and for a little bit longer if it has to. For baseball, not so much. In the larger MLB teams, the revenue from each game is higher, but the loss is higher too. Tickets, merchandise, on-site advertising, these are all a big part of the revenue from a game. 

Long term, the business model just doesn’t work with no fans. Sports need a crowd. The emotions of being there live with a bunch of people, even if it’s a watch party at a bar, the excitement is heightened. The fans are a big part of the storylines in sports. If no one is there to create the atmosphere in the game it’s just not the same, that’s why they’re talking about putting in virtual fans, or bringing in crowd noise to create that effect. The fans help build the emotion of the game.”

What are some of the challenges in making a profit from ghost games?

“The TV side doesn’t change a lot. If you’re someone who wants to buy an outfield wall because you want your logo to be seen, you can still do that. What will change is the brands who are looking for the ballpark interaction. To connect with people through an experience. Each individual contract we have is different in terms of what the client is looking to do and get out of their sponsorship. Their goal might not be for their logo to be seen on national television, they may be looking to connect with a specific local market, to touch people and give them a memorable experience. That will be our biggest challenge, to try and convert and retain revenue with assets that might not have been top of mind initially. In addition, dealing with folks that in this economy may not have the extra dollars to do that. We will be needing to convert them to something they may not have wanted in the first place, and to pay a premium for it.”

How will the crisis affect what games look like in the next few years?

“The overall attendance at baseball has been going down anyway, most people don’t go to a ton of games. We have already been dealing with ideas for different seating areas. Even as new stadiums get built, a lot of people are looking at smaller ballparks and arenas with more luxury and hangout areas for a more intimate experience. Not in terms of proximity but in terms of the experience as a whole. It’s starting to look a bit different than just the rows and rows of people, you can create some more distance, a little room to spread out. Sports is already kind of going towards a more premium experience. It’s moving that way in general and this can be an excellent accelerator for that. People will always want to gather, but will it be 20,000? 50,000? Two aspects will determine that, one is what the regulations will be – what are you legally allowed to do? The second is what the market dictates. The reason we’re going to more social spaces, and hospitality driven tickets, is because that’s what the consumer wants.”

What does getting back to normal look like?

“When we come back that will signal to a lot of people normalcy again. If we are looking at coming back in July, I think there will be a lot of marketing push around “America’s favorite pastime is back on America’s birthday”. The message will be a return to normalcy, it will take some time until we don’t think about it any more but we will get there. There is something about baseball, the length of it, it’s six months of the year, three seasons, it coincides with American life, it is a signal, a road flare of things getting back to normal.”

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