With Live Sports on Hold, Marketers Turn to Athletes for Content

League play has been suspended, so athletes are playing online—and marketers hope to turn it into programming

an empty stadium
With games suspended indefinitely, networks are looking for ways to fill live sports airtime that has been sold to advertisers. Getty Images

Key insights:

Within days of Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert testing positive for coronavirus, almost every major sports league in North America had paused or suspended play, which has included the cancellation of the NCAA’s annual March Madness tournament.

While the extent of the virus and the length of postponements remain unclear, sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and the National Football League have a ton of stars sitting on the proverbial bench who could, very quickly, help to create content to fill some of the dead air.

“There’s going to be a void once we get over the shock over the next couple of days,” said Joe Favorito, a sports marketing expert. “If you’re an interesting athlete that wants to engage with fans, you can probably now show off your personality more than you could during the season.”

Already, the NBA’s LeBron James and rookies Matisse Thybulle and Ja Morant have created TikTok accounts since the suspension of league play. First baseman Pete Alonso of the New York Mets tweeted on Wednesday that if he reached 50,000 retweets, he’d stream himself and teammates playing MLB The Show, a baseball video game.

“The leagues really have an opportunity now to help generate new content; they can start to pump out more talking head programming directly from their coach,” said Daniel Cohen, a senior vice president at Octagon, a creative agency that specializes in sports marketing. “You’re going to see a rise in social casting: athletes and teams working together with broadcasters to find new, innovative ways to have live programming that won’t be live games.”

Imagine members of the 2019 Washington Nationals on a split screen, rewatching and commentating on their performance in that year’s World Series. Or athletes could provide a more personal perspective, as Atlanta Hawks player Trey Young is doing when he livestreams his daily routine while quarantined.

“There hasn’t been a push from broadcasters for that kind of content yet, but now there’s going to be a thirst to feed their sports fans, and technology is there to allow for that,” Cohen said. “There’s a symbiotic relationship between athletes and networks where they need to work together in this. … I know those conversations are underway already.”

ESPN’s own executive vice president of programming, Burke Magnus, said suspending the leagues has “unraveled” the network’s programming schedule and that it was considering “encore presentations” such as re-airing classic games to fill the space.

“There is no product right now. The teams are scrambling and the networks are scrambling to find content to put on: reruns of past seasons, athletes playing against other teams in esports,” said AJ Maestas, the founder and CEO of Navigate Research, a sports marketing consulting firm.

Some teams are already taking matters into their own hands. Last Friday, when the Phoenix Suns and the Dallas Mavericks had been scheduled to play, the Suns hosted a virtual version of the game on NBA2K with members of the league’s own esports teams.

The stream peaked at over 12,000 views, about 8,000 shy of what the Suns typically average for a locally broadcast game. Although the NBA has seen a slump in ratings this season due to injuries among its biggest stars, a primetime game between the Houston Rockets and the Los Angeles Lakers during ABC’s broadcast still pulled 2.92 million viewers.

That stream also would have gotten a bump if the esports game was replaced with one of the NBA’s actual athletes, according to the Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid. Of course, these streams won’t ever match the audience of live games. Maestas said the viewership will inevitably “be radically less, and won’t make up for it.”

Still, some see an opportunity.

“You’ll see us co-create content with some of these athletes; I don’t want to say specific names, but I definitely think there’s an opportunity,” said Zack Weiner, co-founder and president of Overtime, a platform that creates sports content geared toward Gen Z and millennial audiences.

Even though Overtime has worked with professional athletes like New Orleans Pelicans player Zion Williamson, it doesn’t rely on—or care to pay for—live rights. Instead, most of its content is created off the field and court and at the amateur level. Weiner said that Overtime has enough content already stored to last them through the next couple of months.

“They’re not playing games, they’re not with their team, there’s more time,” said Weiner. “They want to tell their stories and they want to interact with their fans. Overtime is a vehicle for them to do it.”

The fact that much of the country is on lockdown has given Overtime a boost: Its engagement and views have risen. Last weekend, Overtime’s views grew 16% and its engagement rose 22% compared to the previous weekend. On Youtube, its channel’s watch time grew by 6%.

“Ultimately, brands still have the goal of reaching their potential consumers,” Weiner said. “Brands will see the extreme value of this off-court, off-field, nontraditional content offers. It’s what our audience wants to see.”

@RyanBarwick ryan.barwick@adweek.com Ryan is a brand reporter covering travel, mobility and sports marketing.