Many players forced to sit out a year returned to the field, gym, ice, etc., in 2021. Sports tourism proved its lasting power, becoming the first events industry segment to regain its footing following COVID-19. That doesn’t mean the impact has been negligible—far from it. But we learned once again parents will prioritize their children’s happiness and future when deciding where to pool their resources.
There is no question the games will go on in 2022. How plans go from RFPs to the playing fields will likely take new routes. Safety has always been a priority, yet the way in which event professionals must tackle the challenges has changed. Likewise, tastes and trends have always changed from year to year. Now, though, we will begin to see what habits formed during lockdowns will remain as some sense of normalcy reemerges.
The new year brings new questions, some of which are out of our control. The emergence of the omicron variant is a reminder COVID-19 is still very much a part of the discussion. So far, vaccines have proven a game changer in preventing a return to ground zero. Using the assumption that we’ve found a way to live and play with the virus, we look beyond to what’s next. Because there is no way to predict,
Connect Sports looks at eight burning questions that will shape the industry going forward.
1. What safety protocols will stick?
The country remains divided about how to combat the pandemic. Vaccines, now available for anyone 5 years old and up, seemingly prevent major illness among the infected. Yet the country has hit a relative standstill with vaccination efforts among adults. Masks and social distancing also help limit the spread. However, the lethargy with both is evident in most everyday activities.
How will that play out in tournaments and events? And what responsibility do event organizers have protecting participants and spectators? Is recommending suggested behavior enough when a potentially severe illness may strike those who don’t follow guidelines. These are the types of dilemmas the industry must face in convening thousands of people together.
Indianapolis, which is hosting the first major event in 2022, the College Football Playoff National Championship, is requiring masks among volunteers working in close proximity to one another, and many ancillary indoor events will require facial coverings. Will this be common among event staff throughout the year? Will some organizations require vaccinations and/or negative tests, even if only among staff with public-facing jobs?
2. How will site selection change?
Some sports hotbeds, like Snohomish County, Wash., have yet to fully reopen, while others, like the state of Florida, have few requirements for events. How planners react to the realities of the situation has severe consequences, including reduction of staff in hotels, arenas, sports complexes and restaurants.
While many events in 2022 are booked, bidding communities for future events could be asking organizations to take a leap of faith that future events can go on as usual. Meanwhile, facilities going the extra mile with safety—including indoor facilities upgrading air filtration systems, as completed at Ion International Training Center in Leesburg, Va.—have fewer question marks and present added security when it comes to protecting attendees’ well-being. Setbacks, such as a new variant, could strike at any moment. Event professionals should consider any safeguards to ensure tournaments can go on at minimal risk.
Regional events may also gain traction over national tournaments to help reduce costs and travel time. As the great resignation is showing us, convenience counts.
3. How will harassment be combatted?
By sitting out events in which she was expected to win a gold medal, Simone Biles took a stand against mental anguish in sports. She has heightened awareness in an industry still struggling with physical abuse, too. National governing bodies, in particular, will be scrutinized for protecting their athletes. Sports associated with one-on-one coaching will also need to reevaluate policies to guard against predators who sneak through the system. Parents should seek more information about their children’s involvement and more athletes will speak up for their rights. Watchdog organizations will be watching for fast improvements.
Another trend worth watching is the treatment of staff and referees in games. The Washington Post notes some officials are so fed up with behavior from sports parents that they are quitting, forcing games to be postponed or canceled.
4. What impact will supply chain issues have?
As key members of the hospitality community, event teams and host destinations have no shortage of goodwill and cheer they can offer guests. But long waits and limited menus due to supply challenges can dampen the experience. Is there a breaking point for some parents who build vacation plans around travel sports schedules?
Another factor to consider is cost. For its many attributes, travel sports are not cheap. Could higher pricing for staffing, awards, gear and other amenities be a dealbreaker? As noted above, parents are going to default toward paying for children’s activities, but there are budget realities we must all face.
5. How will consolidation play out?
Companies and organizations are merging at breakneck speed. In some cases, this puts the best minds of a particular niche—say housing—under one roof. In others, it results in a personnel turnover that puts inexperienced individuals in charge of important tasks. Many events are already relying on contract workers through companies like Soundings to fill part-time roles. Given how important relationships are to booking business, it will be interesting to see how the new way of doing business works out.
6. How will sports tourism branch out?
Staffing changes at CVBs and sports commissions mean a new crop of faces have entered the world of sports tourism. Beth Porreca, director of operations at USA Football, is keeping a close eye on the continued progression for women leagues and event professionals. She notes it not only benefits newcomers to the industry, but also veterans like herself who take pride in progress. “I hope the trend of embracing diversity and celebrating women continues,” Porreca says. “I’ve been reinvigorated by it and have really found myself looking to find ways to develop new skills and experience and challenge myself to keep growing and developing as an employee and person.”
Another trend to watch is “cause-related marketing” to reach new consumers. Porreca points out that brands like Michelob Lite and Nike, as well as prominent athletes like Serena Williams and Steph Curry, are investing major resources into underserved markets. From a sports tourism standpoint, Porreca is already blown away with sponsorship opportunities. “I think this will challenge event owners and sports organizations to develop a clear understanding of their programmatic and community impact in order to build strong sponsorship relationships,” she says. “It will change the way sponsor programs, pitches and activations are developed and I’m excited to see where it takes our industry.”
7. When is a trend the new norm?
Trying to decipher which pandemic patterns are here to stay is the next big game for the events industry. Sports & Fitness Industry Association data shows, unsurprisingly, that individual sports played outdoors have thrived while team sports lost some of their hold on the market. Tennis, for instance, usually sees its number of new participants canceled out by those moving to other sports. In 2020, the growth continued without the loss. Does that mean we’re about to enter a new boom for racquet sports, including pickleballConversely, lacrosse saw noticeable losses. Was that a blip?
8. What role will technology play?
One clear trend from the pandemic is that it sped up advancements. For instance, the National Federation of State High School Associations was already offering streaming capabilities prior to 2019. But when attendance and travel became limited, online viewing became the only alternative for many interested parties. Mark Koski, chief marketing officer at NFHS, says the technology can’t reproduce the experience of being at a game. But livestreaming increases the availability for family members, college coaches and more to catch the action. “Sports are such a shared experience. Being able to expand the audience across multiple channels can only be a good thing,” says Koski.
Look for more schools and events to go paperless with tickets, which cuts down on printing costs and should speed the entry process. The transition should go relatively seamless as audiences are already accustomed to phones acting as boarding passes and concert/theater tickets.