It didn’t take long for Mike Mon, founder and director of the Asian Basketball Championships of North America, to realize COVID-19 presented a challenge far broader than the sports industry alone faces.
With the 2020 ABCNA Eastern Regionals was slated for Rider University in New Jersey, Mon pulled the plug days before the 27-team tournament tipped off. “I couldn't look at myself if our event contributed to even one transmission,” he says.
The same night Mon cancelled his event, the coronavirus crisis spiraled in this country. As the World Health Organization declared the disease a pandemic, President Trump banned inbound travel from Europe and Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19. Cruise lines set anchor for two months and Disneyland and Broadway soon went dark.
In sports, the NBA placed it season on hold, and was soon followed all other major league sports. March Madness was originally going to be played in empty gyms before the NCAA took the extraordinary step of calling it off, along with all winter and spring championships. It remains to be seen if the Tokyo Olympics will go on scheduled.
Beyond the disappointment of athletes, from the basketball players Mon was set to host to elite college competitors looking to cap off their amateur careers, COVID-19’s economic impact is too high to comprehend right now. Hotel rooms sit empty, as do sports complexes grand and small. With “social distancing” becoming a common phrase, schools and recreation leagues have been forced to close, let alone gatherings of thousands of people.
The sports tourism industry, like much of the country, must sit and watch the coronavirus run its course. Industry leaders all agree sports will be instrumental in how the United States recovers, but the question remains when the healing begins.
“This is all uncharted territory,” says Don Schumacher, CSEE, former executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions (now Sports ETA) and founder of DSA Sports LLC. “It may be too soon to write off the year but not too soon to realize the danger of this threat, which is the biggest our industry has ever faced.”
Russ Yurk, president and founder of 129 Sports and commissioner of the Eastern Intercollegiate Volleyball Association, says he went from monitoring events day-by-day to hour-by-hour. Yurk, who also assists on the NCAA site selection process, notes the irony that the power sports has to unify people is what has forced so many events to be postponed or cancelled.
“Sports has always been the common denominator that has brought us together locally and nationally and help heal our nation after its greatest tragedies,” Yurk says. “That togetherness is now contrary to the recommended course of action.”
DMOs, CVBs and sports commissions can only abide by decisions made at the executive level. At some point, they will again host sporting events filled with energetic children and enthusiastic parents.
“We are witnessing a temporary disruption, but there is no doubt that sports tourism as a whole will inevitably bounce back quickly,” says Clay Partain, CSEE, director of sports market sales at Visit Salt Lake.
Remaining upbeat and thinking long-term is key, he adds: “Keep positive, wash your hands, and let’s all keep moving forward day by day!”
Kevin Smith, managing partner at The Collective, a new sports tourism consulting firm, says COVID-19 offers a chance to change perspective and modus operandi.
“Maybe now is the time that in addition to room nights, we begin to talk about citizen and visitor engagement,” he says. “As professionals, we all certainly know where are funding support is generated but who’s to say our next ambassador for sports tourism isn’t part of a local sports effort, supported by the tourism industry leaders that we strive to be for our neighbors.”
Smith also notes many sports planners are too young to have been working in the industry during the Great Recession, the last major inflection point, to say nothing of 9/11. But for those who did and remember the recovery process, they see sports at the forefront.
“The great thing about sports is that it will likely be the tool to restore things for people and to put things back to normal,” predicts Jon Schmieder, CEO and founder of Huddle Up Group.