July 2, 2022

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Bulls & Bears: The sports world has shown remarkable resiliency in the face of COVID-19

Opinion: In general, however, the sport industry has been remarkably resilient in navigating its way through the shutdowns, restrictions and roster challenges presented by the coronavirus in its various forms — especially most recently in connection with the highly-contagious Omicron variant.

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Bulls of the week

Last week’s cancellation of the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships is arguably the low point of the COVID-19 pandemic to date, financially and emotionally. That’s at least true from a Canadian stakeholder point of view, where even the loss of an entire CFL season in 2020 seemed more understandable given the circumstances at the time and the gate-driven business of three down football in Canada.

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In general, however, the sport industry has been remarkably resilient in navigating its way through the shutdowns, restrictions and roster challenges presented by the coronavirus in its various forms — especially most recently in connection with the highly-contagious Omicron variant.

The big five North American sports leagues have each found a way to crown champions. It’s been two years of league titleholders in the case of the NHL, NBA, MLB and MLS, even if the first time through in 2020 happened in so-called “bubbles” with no fans in the stands.

Throughout the process, professional sport has reaffirmed the unparalleled strength of its communications platforms. The leagues and teams — and, for the most part, individual players — have been admirable in the public advocacy and messaging they’ve stood behind.

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The most bullish franchises have been those that have elevated their digital, social and virtual media games, further expanding their existing leadership positions by ensuring a steady supply of compelling content and fan engagement.

Yet perhaps the biggest winners in the business of sport have been those that have cornered the market during the pandemic. The meteoric rise of collectibles and trading cards these past two years is only one example of what happened when fans spent more time at home and online, looking for an escape from the daily onslaught of case counts and health orders.

How far NFTs go post-COVID remains to be seen, but digital collectibles could very well be among the legacies of the pandemic.

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Sports betting could be another of the future-facing forces that help sports leagues, franchises and owners recoup some of the losses they’ve endured during the pandemic. The combination of legalized single-event wagering and mobile betting is clearly expanding the volume of money vested in sport and it will only grow over time as betting kiosks and lounges populate the marketplace, including at stadiums and arenas throughout North America.

Watch for betting to play an important role in creating new virtual experiences that will only be more urgent in the months and years to come. Think metaverse.

Add direct-to-consumer merchandising, an explosion in team apparel, steady growth in streaming and the rise of new platforms such as the juggernaut that is Amazon and no one should be expecting any sizable COVID-driven contraction in the enterprise value of sport and sport teams.

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Bears of the week

For all of its stubborn strength in the face of COVID-19, there’s no question that the sport industry has been among the hardest hit in North America and globally.

The business of sport — like the business of business and the business of life performs best in a climate of certainty. Yet as we’ve seen with the fourth-wave resurgence of the virus through the spread of Omicron, predictability isn’t a defining characteristic of the pandemic. The aforementioned cancellation of the World Juniors is something we wouldn’t have seen coming at this time last week. Yet here we are: No World Juniors, postponements galore in the NHL and no NHL players at next month’s Beijing 2022 Olympics.

Marketing communications executive and sport business commentator Tom Mayenknecht is a principal in Emblematica Brand Builders and the host of The Sport Market on BNN Bloomberg Radio 1410 and TSN Radio nationally. Follow Mayenknecht at: twitter.com/TheSportMarket

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