Alex Evans and The Return of Live Events Post Covid-19 (Part One)

L.E.K. Consulting Managing Director Alex Evans discusses a survey his firm conducted polling participants about their views on Covid-19 as it relates to their comfort and willingness to attend live events.
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Alex Evans is a managing director at L.E.K. Consulting with over 20 years of media experience. Back in April, his firm conducted a survey polling participants about their views on Covid-19 as it relates to their comfort and willingness to attend live events. I sat down with Evans in June as he took me through all of the survey’s findings. To be fair, the Covid-19 situation has drastically changed since then, but L.E.K.’s study yielded some interesting findings.

The following interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for time:

Justin Birnbaum: How big was the sample group, and what were you trying to find?

Alex Evans: The sample group was 1,250 participants. We felt that in mid-to-late April, so like the 16th to the 23rd, the trend in Covid-19 cases was right at the heart of new cases being reported. So, Covid-19 was clearly on the mindset of people. We had asked to what extent people thought Covid-19 was a great threat versus not a threat at all, and about 80 percent rated it four or five on a five-point scale. So, there was a lot of coronavirus concern when we fielded this survey.

JB: Can you break down the demographics of the sample group further? What is the age range, and where are they located?

AE: It’s basically a nationally representative sample. It’s roughly balanced to the U.S. I think the survey skewed just a slight bit older and a slight bit lower income, but generally within bounds of a representative population. And then, also, about a third of the survey considered themselves avid sports fans, about 27 percent considered themselves casual sports and about 40 percent were non-sports fans. We then asked about fandom more specifically, and that’s important because one of the things we were trying to get was what sports fans think about returning to events.

JB: To clarify, when you say nationally representative, does that mean there are established age bounds and stuff? Is there an industry standard with that?

AE: Basically, we work with third-party survey vendors who maintain panels. We monitor their responses and make sure we rebalance them to make sure we’re not getting some sort of skew that has every respondent under the age of 25 or from one particular region and whatnot. So it’s a panel that’s open nationally, but the results are balanced so that you don’t get some sort of crazy skew.

JB: You mentioned three distinct groups of sports fans. You have people rating Covid-19 as a major threat. Does the study drill down to each person’s comfortability being in a stadium or crowded environment?

AE: We asked things like: Do they expect to attend fewer live events once the outbreak is contained? We asked about the timing of when they would feel comfortable going back to events. We asked them what promoters, venue operators and teams could do to make people more comfortable. And then went deeper to find out if they expected to attend fewer or more events, what are the reasons behind those? We asked people generally once events and entertainment venues are open once again, how often they think they’ll attend. And we asked for a range of things from going to movies, indoor concerts, indoor sporting events, seated outdoor sporting events, non-seated outdoor sporting events and so on.

We found, and I’ll take an example like a seated outdoor sporting event, that there’s a net of about 24 percent more people saying they would attend fewer events than more events. You arrive at that number by subtracting all the folks expecting to attend fewer events from those attending more events. And there’s about a third that says they’ll attend about the same. I think it’s obvious why people might attend fewer. Why do they expect to attend more? I think part of that is a bounce back. They’re hungry to go back to these. So, there is a sliver of the population that is really interested in getting back.

When we ask questions like that, we get to a point that says, how quickly does that happen? How long do you think it’ll be before you get comfortable again? What was interesting, taking the seated outdoor sporting events, about 60 percent of people said it would take a few months. Among avid sports fans, and this is not specific to a sport, you’re looking at something more like 65 percent. So just generally, sports fans are more eager to get back to live events. And it doesn’t matter if we’re talking indoor sporting events, a seated outdoor sporting even or a non-seated outdoor sporting event, it’s all about the same. But overall, it’s about the same whether or not you’re a sports fan.

What is interesting is that we did ask people if they were interested in returning as soon as possible, and there’s a meaningful difference for avid sports fans versus the general population, anywhere from five to eight percent of our respondent base. So, for avid sports fans, there is more pent-up demand to get back to events. And one of the things we also found, I should have mentioned this before, is there are some variations by sport relating to the change in attendance once the outbreak was contained.

Say you’re a casual or an avid NFL fan, we found that on net, about 12 percent of those fans said that they expected to attend fewer events. But when we compare to Major League Soccer, it was about a wash. So, some fans expect to attend more, and some who expect to attend fewer. But the net was more or less even. It was interesting that not all sports are created equal, that some fanbases are willing to get back sooner. Maybe part of that is the MLS fanbase probably skews a bit younger. And maybe you’re just more willing to get back into a lot of sports because of that level of being an avid fan, which really shows your significant desire to get back to games.

JB: Is there any heightened concern tied to a potential second wave of the virus in the winter months?

AE: It’s a fair question. I mean, remember, this survey was done at what seemed to be the height of things in April. So, you’d have to have a pretty significant bounce back into that mindset. Because even right now, maybe a month or five weeks after we’ve done the survey right now, the sentiment has really changed. And we’ve seen this in some broader consumer work. So, you definitely need to see a pretty big bounce back in cases.

But there’s this other thing that you have to think about. This doesn’t represent every single attendee of an event. Think about the college football world. Certain teams consistently sell out their games – the Michigan’s, the Alabama’s, the Ohio State’s, right? But a lot of teams do not sell out their games. What you find is the avid fan is going to be much more willing to go back to games than the casual fan and certainly the non-fan. And you’re still going to have social distancing requirements. Probably some sort of – I mean, you see what’s happening with restaurants and retail stores that are at 50 percent, 60 percent or even 25 percent capacity. Different jurisdictions have different limits. You’re going to have a forced capacity reduction anyways.

So, you may actually have a balancing of the fans that are willing to come back with the amount that is actually allowed to come back. You might be able to sell out to your hardcore, more avid fans to your capacity limits because you’re not having to fill every last seat in the house with those marginal fans and doing the promotions and the giveaways and all this stuff that put butts in seats. They’re probably not going to be able to do that this year.

So, I think in some ways it may not be as dire as some put out there. You’ve got the Seton Hall study that I think like 72 percent of the population wouldn’t go back to a sporting event until there’s a vaccine. But remember, for any particular team, you’re talking about a relevant local fan base. And the avid ones are the ones who tend to be going and will be much more willing to go. Then, if you layer on capacity restrictions, you may be able to fill things out. There’s a wild card, corporate boxes and all of that are a little different. That’s going to have a totally different dynamic. So, we really couldn’t test those dynamics specifically. That may just be on a whole different plane than the more standard seating sections of the stadium.

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