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What Business Trend are Professionals Watching in 2021?

  • NIL legislation, activism efforts from athletes and brands, and the longevity of remote work are among the business trends being watched the most.
  • With potential prolonged WFH, virtual mental health opportunities a key trend for many as well.
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Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

On Fridays in 2021, we are shifting the popular “Question of the Day” poll section at the bottom of our FOS AM newsletter into an open-ended question, and welcoming FOS subscribers to weigh in with their opinions, thoughts and predictions.

Each week, we will highlight a few dozen responses to show how professionals, educators and students are thinking about the latest developments in the sports industry.

The responses below come from our January 29th question:

What is the business trend you are watching in 2021?


Pro sports hiring managers actively recruiting & selecting non-traditional sports executives (those who have not spent their entire career in sports) to lead teams, conferences, and leagues.  I think of Jason Wright at the Washington Football Team as a great example of this. Listening to him, it is evident his perspective, experiences, and lines of thinking vary from most traditional sports leaders. I am hopeful that our industry places an emphasis on attracting leaders and high performers from more traditional industries.
— Chad Cardinal
Vice President, The Aspire Group

The business trend I am looking at in 2021 and beyond, is the rise of audio. Audio as content. Audio as a means of communication across companies, nations even. Podcasting and now Clubhouse show no signs of slowing down – but is this a trend that has been exacerbated because of wfh? Will a return to normalcy bring us back to old ways? If not, how does tech like Google Home and Alexa plug into this, also? Can businesses and individuals capitalize on this space through endorsements etc – one facet that has yet to be truly locked down like it has been now for a couple of years on traditional social, for example! So many questions – definitely an exciting space to play in and be in right now!
— Tom Ravenhill
Founder, Humanized Marketing Strategies

The business trend I am watching in 2021 is organizational (digital) transformation for many professional esports organizations. They are transforming to be lifestyle brands, technological/ cultural forces in society, and serious forms of entertainment contents. Some esports publishers are showing organizational transformation by investing in the areas of IT and data management.  
— Seungbum Lee
Professor, College of Business at the University of Akron

As a licensed product manufacturer and retailer we are certainly looking to the consumer buying trends and if any B&M retailers will find a creative way to drive more traffic to their stores.  As an ecommerce retailer I am interested to see how the trends in influencer marketing on social media and what/who is driving consumers to shop.
— Matthew Katz
Licensing Director, FOCO

The 2021 Business trend I will be watching is will work from home continue to rise in popularity as COVID slowly leaves our lives, or will humans seek working in offices post pandemic.
— Jacob Freeze
Area Manager, Amazon

I’m looking forward to the continued emphasis on purpose marketing. Not only has purpose driven marketing proved profitable, but in the truest forms, it’s needed for our people and our planet. I’m excited for the potential brands have if they take their social responsibility to heart and if consumers continue to hold them accountable like we’ve seen during the pandemic.
— Lydia Knoll
Digital Publisher, adidas

Generation of make good ideas from sports properties like the NFL where it was announced that they’ll be utilizing the LED signage for the first 7 rows in Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium instead of regular tarps. The league reports that the value of LED signage inventory in this event is between $1.5 – $2million for 8-12 minutes of game time exposure. These types of MG ideas as well as the NHL and MLS pivoting to unique ways to recoup value lost for their partners could result in new ad inventory that is here to stay. (Source: SBJ Morning Buzzcast Podcast 1/29/21)
— Matt Gorlick
Sales Planner, Pac-12 Networks

I’m interested in seeing further development in amplifying players’ desire to raise awareness about issues and causes that are meaningful to them.
— Mel Barry
Marketing Manager, New Orleans Saints

I am watching how sports leagues and franchises pivot for a continuing pandemic world and change how they engage with fans and constantly changing budgets.
— Mike Kennedy
Account Manager, Alta Equipment Company 

Collegiate esports, especially how developers and other tournament organizers develop partnerships with Power 5 conferences like the Maui Esports Invitational
— Jennifer Lee Hoffman
Associate Professor, Center For Leadership in Athletics, University of Washington

I’m certainly keeping an eye on which consumer/fan behavior changes are here to stay, which will fall to the wayside as things open back up, and how will the past year impact fan expectations of future experiences. As we saw sports viewership dip way down across the board, I’m curious how that will correlate to in-person attendance at sporting events. This makes having a good handle on any behavior changes all the more important. 
— Chris Hart
Manager of Innovation, Cleveland Indians

Although there are quite a few shiny objects dangling within view of today’s sport-related properties, such as sports betting/micro-wagering, AI, virtual reality, esports, streaming, etc., Covid-19 and its continuing impact on the sport industry heads my list of business trends to watch in 2021. In 2009, the European Journal of Social Psychology published the results of a study that claimed it takes between 18-254 days for a person to form a new habit. A new behavior, the study claims, can take only 66 days for it to become automatic. With that in mind, the entire sport industry has to be sitting on pins and needles (no pun intended) as the vaccine continues its slow roll-out and the homebound fan seeks and finds new ways to keep from getting bored. There has been more than enough time for sports fans, especially those in the important casual sector, to develop new interests, hobbies and entertainment/sports consumption habits.  The burning question, I think, is how long will it take the live consumption habits of fans to come close to matching those of March 11, 2020?  As we know, the sports world came crashing down that day, and the pandemic’s impact might be felt for years to come.  

How the industry responds through new innovations and the use of technology may be a matter of survival.  To paraphrase something the late Marvin Miller once told me, you can’t take for granted that the things you have today will last forever.  So, assuming that the industry will return to pre-pandemic levels might be a mistake.  Those organizations and industries that are in tune to the evolving habits of its consumers and use that information to speed up the curve of innovation and product-delivery, could be the ones left standing and thriving in the not-too-distant future.

— Greg Bouris
President, power x communications,
Undergraduate Sport Management Program Director, Adelphi University

What will the fan experience look like post COVID-19 and will our sports fan bases come rushing back to attend sporting events in 2021 and beyond?
— Bill Robertson
President/Men’s Commissioner, WCHA

I will be watching the continued rise of athlete and brand activism. Look no further than Naomi Osaka’s purpose-driven partnerships in the wake of her demonstration during several tournaments, and Citi’s response to Justin Thomas’s use of an anti-gay slur during a round as examples of a new paradigm in sports partnerships. Taking a public stand on social issues is no longer taboo in the sports business. In fact, it’s what younger fans want to see from their favorite athletes and brands. Expect to see more activism this year – it’s good for business and good for society.
— John Balkam
Founder, TWG

Lean-in to outsourcing/consulting for cost savings/efficiency; continued diversification of content delivery (e.g. the Nickelodeon/NFL experiment, to keep existing fans happy without losing younger/at-risk audiences); Teams choosing between shifting inventory price given the long gap in physical attendance opportunities vs. the good PR of holding steady despite the bottom line implications
— Jack Luce
Director, Strategy, Analytics, & Marketing, The Aspire Group

 The growth of NCAA baseball as Major League Baseball (MLB) has reduced the draft from forty to twenty rounds, contracted the minor league system and teams (MiLB), and combined with NIL opportunities, the result likely means more college baseball players.  The influx of talent and opportunity could lead to larger television contracts and brand partnerships for universities, networks, streamers, and conferences.
— Jeremy M. Evans, Esq.
CEO, Founder & Managing Attorney at California Sports Lawyer® 

Once sporting events return to full capacity (or close to it), which industries will be first to return/start coming to events with their clients/employees.
— Rich Bello
Director of Team Business Development, ECHL

I believe the trend to watch this year is how ESPN, Sinclair/Bally’s Sports Networks and Comcast handle the fall out of the pandemic in regards to rising media rights and less games to broadcast. ESPN/Disney has begun the process of addressing the problem by moving to a second platform (ESPN+) and laying off more employees. Sinclair has turned their focus to gambling by incorporating Bally’s as their title sponsor and Comcast is jettisoning NBCSN and moving content to their streaming platform (Peacock) and USA Network. Professional sports teams are currently borrowing billions while losing billions just to stay afloat. Something has to give. What is the outcome for 2022 and beyond? What cost savings will be implemented by the networks to make ends meet?
— Scott Hecht
Executive Producer/Director, Syracuse University Athletics

Trend I’m interested in is what in-person meetings will look like with the inevitability of always having some participant(s) be remote. Most conference rooms have video capabilities, but now the setups will need to be reoriented towards the screen.
— Daniel Fogel 
Director – Marketing, CLC

I’m interested in watching how college athletes gain the ability to profit from their name, image and likeness is the open market.
— Tim Balke
Retired

Reaction of sports organizations, leagues, fans, and amateur participants against continued lockdowns and/or restrictions. 
— Kevin Milliken
Commissioner, Premier Arena Soccer League

How Paycheck Protection Program funds are allocated and the execution of the disbursements. 
— Patrick Daily 
Relationship Manager, New Jersey Chamber of Commerce

Quick Hits

  • Sports cards market. (Trent Chesnut – Football Equipment Manager, U. of Illinois)
  • The confidence, or lack thereof, of fans returning to full buildings. (Frank Miceli​ – SVP Revenue & Franchise Operations, Spurs Sports & Entertainment)
  • Livestream vs traditional sports engagement! (Sammy Choi – Senior Vice President – Digital Media Production, Wells Fargo)
  • Healthcare business trends. (Sharon ShuteStudent, Certified Medical Assistant-Interim)
  • Virtual mental health services! (Natasha Trujillo, PhD, LP Primary Therapist, EDCare)
  • Sports for positive change, from social justice to climate action. (Kristen FulmerFounder, Recipric)
  • Diversity in sports. (Randeep PurewalCEO & Founder, Divercial Group)
  • NCAA and NIL legislation. Conference realignment – regional play (Lynn M. NewtonExecutive Associate Commissioner Internal Affairs & Chief Financial Officer, Colonial Athletic Association)
  • WFH fatigue. Will people decide to go back to work once a vaccine is fully available? (Sean Carey Intercollegiate Athletics, Michigan State University)
  • The potential offering by the Boston Red Sox/Fenway Sports Group going public. (Ernie MayProgram Coordinator for Sport Management, Dean College)
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