The Sports Must Go On! 5 Ways Leagues & Brands Can Rethink Sports at a Distance


Americans are at home, bored, and craving entertainment. Marble races were trending on Youtube in March. Viewers flocked to watch the Michael Jordan biopic, “The Last Dance.” Even the President is bored. At the White House podium in mid-April, he remarked, “We have to get our sports back. I’m tired of watching baseball games that are 14 years old.”

But what are the ways we can realistically get back on the field? And once players are there, how can brands engage with the game and reach fans? 


#1: No fans in the stand

Due to COVID-19, large gatherings, especially those of hundreds or thousands of people, are not permitted. However, brands can engage with fans, even from a distance, by sponsoring the game’s “fan cardboard cutouts.” What is a fan cardboard cutout? In Taiwan’s professional baseball league (one of the only professional sports leagues still operating during the pandemic), fans are purchasing cardboard cutouts with their face printed on the front, often topped off with googly eyes. These cutouts are then placed in the stands–and create an excellent placement opportunity for a brand’s logo. Tapping into new and novel ways professional sports are adapting to the pandemic can set a brand apart from the pack.   

#2: 1 week on, 2 weeks off

With the incubation time for the virus at 5-6 days on average and 14 days on the margin, containing the virus and ensuring the safety of players should be possible through a 1 week on, 2 weeks off cadence. How would this work? Teams would be paired up for week-long series where they would be isolated to living spaces only with their teammates and coaches. At the end of the week-long series, the teams would isolate themselves for two weeks, in preparation for the next series with another team. This system would allow for all to return to team sports without fear of contracting the virus and is being discussed by the MLB. 

#3: 6 Feet Apart 

In many team sports, this isn’t possible. But with sports like golf, tennis, and NASCAR, maintaining a 6-foot distance should be attainable! Furthermore, in sports where social distancing is possible, mask-wearing for coaches, tournament staff, and umpires should be standard practice. 

#4: No Spitting

A time-honored tradition in many sports, especially baseball, spitting has become something of a ritual for many players. But that spit, in the age of COVID, can be a super spreader. So much so that spitting has been banned in the Chinese Professional Baseball League. Players who spit are fined. More reforms around movement in sports will be necessary as we weather the pandemic, but we do look forward to traditions, like spitting and high fives coming back once we return to normal life in 2021.  

#5: Interactive Advertising 

So much of the way sponsorship is traditionally carried out happens in the stadium. T-Shirt guns are shot into the crowd from the court and fast food wrappers are emblazoned with the sponsor’s logo. But what if this interaction could happen from home? With QR codes, app development, and digital activations, the sky’s the limit. A pre-COVID example is Chipotle’s fan interaction during the Super Bowl. Chipotle wasn’t an official sponsor of the NFL but instead opted for sponsoring TikTok’s Hype House during the big game and utilizing their combined platforms of over 100M users to promote new menu items. Through creative activations and digital advancements, brands will be able to reach a broader audience; through sponsorship attribution, brands will be able to see how online activations affect offline spend. To learn more about sponsorship attribution, read “The Most Important Sponsorship Metric You Have Never Seen” here. 

Are Sports Really This Important? 

Ultimately, some may wonder, “why is getting sports back on their feet important? Aren’t we able to sit down, relax, and watch Netflix until 2021?” 

The answer? Yes, sports are really important. Bringing back sports will not only stave off job loss (in 2014, professional sports created just shy of half a million jobs), they’re important for national morale. During both world wars, canceling sports was discussed. According to sports historian Victoria Jackson, the decision to continue sports, in both cases, was made, “to entertain and lift the spirits of the people making sacrifices on the home front for their country.” While the sacrifices may look different these days, I think we can all agree that if we can get sports back safely, both brands, leagues, players, and fans will benefit.