What Are Sports Media Companies Doing Without Live Games?

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Conventional wisdom finds that niche publications with a dedicated audience have a little more protection from the whims of a topsy-turvy ad environment, as such readers are valuable to specific advertisers and also loyal enough to pony up for a subscription.

But what happens to those media businesses when their coverage is centered around an industry powered by live sports events that have been canceled or postponed indefinitely by the spread of the coronavirus?

Editors of major sports media organizations say it’s been a challenge, but one that’s forced their newsrooms to think creatively about what coverage might be possible when a nation with a deep culture and appreciation for athleticism is forced to reckon with stadiums, courts and arenas keeping their lights off.

Media buyers who have long affirmed the value in purchasing ads targeted to a passionate and loyal sports fan base said the opportunity to reach those consumers still exists in these uncertain times.

“Figuring out the way to cover sports when there’s no sports going on has been a challenge,” said Ryan Hunt, co-editor in chief of Sports Illustrated. “It’s taken the brainpower and ingenuity and creativity of our entire staff.”

What COVID-19 will also expose, experts predict, is the unsound business model of many media companies that won’t be able to withstand the coronavirus storm until the market corrects, a timeline that remains in dispute, even wholly unknown.

“I have no doubt in my mind we’ll return to normal. The question is when,” said Len Elmore, senior lecturer in sports management at Columbia University. “That means real business acumen on how to deal with the losses.”

Newsrooms across the country are focusing on covering more evergreen and historical aspects of the industry. Athletes, meanwhile, have taken to The Players’ Tribune, to write tributes to the cities they’ve played in. On Bleacher Report, coverage has included interviews with players, and Sports Illustrated has taken a big picture view on topics such as the legal ramifications of postponing the Olympics.

“Certainly, the dearth of programming and games being played has dramatically affected how the sports media is covering everything,” said Scott Rosner, academic director of Columbia’s sports management masters program. “How do you tell a beat reporter to cover something when there’s nothing to cover? When there is no beat?”

On TV, sports fans have shifted their eyeballs to streaming services, binge watching dramas like Law & Order: SVU and sitcoms, or tuning in to the news. They also took note of the more whimsical “sports” that networks had to offer, including cherry pit spitting, rock skipping and cheese rolling.

Wave, a digital media organization that lives on social media feeds, has worked with its league and rights partners to access more historical archive footage to “connect a younger generation of fans with the games’ past,” said Brian Verne, co-founder and CEO of Wave.

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“At the end of the day, sports entertainment is about uncovering the unscripted drama that has always been, and will always be, lying in plain sight,” Verne said. “Our job is to uncover these moments and deliver them to fans, wherever and whenever they want to be entertained.”

Sports media organizations are also seeing a rise in readership on mobile, and more traffic is coming via the publishers’ apps and social feeds. Many are hopeful that even though live sports are delayed, the buys associated with those big tentpole events will come back when coronavirus has cleared and live games are back on.

“We’re playing the long game here. Not one quarter is going to define us as a business,” said Rich Routman, president and CRO of Minute Media, which owns brands like The Players’ Tribune and The Big Lead.

The esports industry will likely see an even bigger boon, thanks to more people being at home, said Josh Spiegelman, managing director of sponsorships at Mindshare USA.

“As people spend more time at home, a sizable audience will continue to seek out various forms of sports programming to provide an escape and sense of normalcy,” he said. “So, there should still be substantial eyeballs to reach via sports media for brands that choose to maintain their media investment.”

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