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. To read part one of the conversation, click here.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and condensed for time:
Justin Birnbaum: Is there a way to regionally break this out? SEC versus PAC-12, maybe? It seems football may be culturally more important in the south than in the west.
Alex Evans: It’s interesting. We had the same hypothesis. Out data didn’t show that, but we didn’t ask in a way that allowed us to cut for the SEC specifically. We just did regional cuts to see exactly that. We didn’t find that people in the Southeast suddenly wanted to go back to events in significantly greater amounts than other regions. But to your point, when you get into the reality of it, I bet you’re going to see a lot of return of attendance to the SEC programs and the big schools with big avid follows.
Also, the SEC – they’ve been open and more flexible in those states. And then, I think what’s interesting is what will happen in the PAC-12. I don’t think any team in the PAC-12 has been near selling out. Even USC has been down in terms of attendance. So, no one’s really consistent. Oregon, I guess, is maybe an exception. But they’re not filled necessarily. I think everyone will see diminished attendance, but to your point, I think nothing in here disproves the hypothesis that you’re probably going to get a bigger bounce back in the SEC. You can draw 40,000 people to a spring game in the SEC – that’s like a regular-season game in the PAC-12. I think that’s going to play out regardless of what you might be able to see in our survey.
JB: You mentioned earlier a one-to-five scale ranking people’s perception of Covid-19 as a threat. What percentage of respondents labeled it at least a four?
AE: So, 81 percent labeled it at least a four. The question was on a scale of one to five with one not at all a threat and five being a grave threat. And interestingly, it was just a tad higher for avid sports fans than the non-sports fans. I don’t think there’s a specific reason why the sports fans might see it as a graver threat, but it was an interesting outcome.
JB: The conclusion I’ve been hearing from people is that college sports and the broader sports economy will endure a multi-year recovery. Is your data in line with that?
AE: It’s a couple of things. One other aspect to quote is that we asked whether there are any measures that venues could take to make consumers more comfortable attending live entertainment events post coronavirus. So, this wasn’t specific to college football, but live events more generally. What’s interesting, and they could select more than one, the top five would make 72 percent of avid sports fans more comfortable attending and those included thorough cleaning and disinfecting between events, making hand sanitizer more available, limiting capacity, having face masks available and stricter hygiene safety practices for employees.
None of those are inconsistent with what every team and venue has been planning. So, you’re talking about a basket of initiatives that venue operators can take to make two-thirds to three-quarters of the fan base more comfortable attending. Look, this year will have a lot of uncertainty, and I think part of the challenge is also planning. People travel to games, and there’s so much uncertainty about game days and whether football season will happen. There’s a lot of craziness, and people are waiting and seeing. I think the teams are going to be extremely cautious and take a lot of precautions. But you’d have to expect your attendance will be down since there will be mandated capacity restrictions.
But nothing in our survey suggests that there’s going to be a fundamental decline in fandom, right? And people do want to come back. There’s only a small amount that is against the idea. Twenty-six percent of total respondents said there was nothing that could be done to make them feel more comfortable. So, a quarter of people overall, which includes non-sports fans, are just not going to be comfortable.
I think the people who are going to come back, even if they sit out this year are going to bounce back because they still have a connection. They still want to go to games. You have to believe that people have short memories. If you look back at what happened with air travel after 9/11, people were pretty leery of getting on planes for a while, right? Then you put in security and TSA, and all this stuff and air travel bounced back to record levels. It had a recession a few years later, but people got over it.
Particularly here, where there’s a passionate fan base, it’s going to be a painful year. There’s going to be a bounce back, and there’s also the vaccine, which is a wild card. But operators are going to figure out how to implement these requirements. And the hardcore fan and a lot of casual fans will be comfortable with whatever’s adopted. The bigger question is when you can expand capacity, although you’re going to be held down for a while. So, that’s going to keep a ceiling on any potential revenue for this year. And then, I think its wait and see for how vaccines evolve and whether those capacity restrictions can be relaxed after the 2021 season.
JB: Any closing thoughts on this subject?
AE: People will get on or figure out how to get comfortable with it. And operators will figure out the policies that work, some of which will be good things honestly – things they probably should have done in the past, right? Like the condiment stands, your hot dogs and hamburgers will probably be a heck of a lot cleaner than before. The restrooms probably won’t be as crowded, and they’ll have some controls like unidirectional travel. There will likely be specific entrances to the stadium, and you might have to come earlier and go through a designated area. The walkways might be laid out like roads where it’s one direction to manage the traffic flow.
I think people want to get back to games, and you see a little evidence of this by looking at all the sports that have come back – NASCAR, Bundesliga, the NFL Draft, and all these things. When they come back, they see these spikes in viewership showing that kind of hunger. And so, again, our thesis is Covid-19 hasn’t changed fandom. If you’re a fan of the sport, you’re still a fan of the sport. You just change how you have to engage right now. But it hasn’t necessarily disconnected a person’s attachment to their sport or team. I think the bigger issue is if it persists longer, these restrictions go on and sports stay off TV, which might hinder the ability to bring on new fans. But at least if you’re a big Florida fan, and you follow everything that happens to the Gators, you’re no less of a fan on June 1 than you were on February 1. You’re just now waiting for the season to start; however it does.
You can find part one of the conversation here.