Sports Comms During COVID-19
by Nate Wolf
by Nate Wolf
Assuming the NFL gets started this fall, America’s big four professional sports leagues—the NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL—will all soon be playing concurrently in a rare “sports equinox.” Throughout the spring, league officials, team executives, and players all debated whether to restart their seasons and when, where, and how to do so. Those were just the logistical questions; communicating their decisions was an entirely different endeavor.
Leagues had—and continue to have—an obvious healthcare communications challenge: assembling groups of people and contact sports are both inherently risky amidst a pandemic. They also had to wage a tricky labor communications campaign because players’ unions wield considerable power in America’s professional sports leagues. As you’ll see from the good, bad, and ugly explored here, some leagues have threaded that needle much more effectively than others.
The Good: The NBA and WNBA
The NBA and WNBA have been this country’s standout leagues in communicating their return. In June, the men’s league announced a deal with Disney to finish a slightly modified seeding round and playoffs from a quarantined campus at Walt Disney World. The WNBA followed a couple of weeks later with a similar setup at IMG Academy in Florida.
From a health standpoint, the leagues clearly communicated their plans. The NBA’s announcement introduced a detailed arrival protocol, testing regimen, and food arrangements, even specifying what leisure activities players could enjoy and offering them high-tech biometric tracking devices. This degree of detail has been critical to the league’s success, providing consistency for players and a sealed “bubble” players and fans seem to trust. To that end, the NBA regularly released its testing results in July and into August; there hasn’t been a single confirmed COVID-19 case since play resumed.
On the labor front, things didn’t start so swimmingly. The NBA and its players’ union announced its plans to resume play just as protests began following the murder of George Floyd. Dozens of players, including major stars like Kyrie Irving and Damian Lillard, were understandably wary of taking the spotlight off racial justice. The league rapidly took this feedback on board and pledged to use its platform for player-led advocacy.
In her return statement, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert mentioned Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by name, saying “it is our collective responsibility to use our platforms to enact change.” A week later, the NBA and players’ union released a joint statement declaring, “the goal of the season restart in Orlando will be to take collective action to combat systemic racism and promote social justice.” From Taylor’s name on the back of the WNBA players’ jerseys to “Black Lives Matter” painted on the court, the leagues have taken steps to follow through on that promise.
The Bad: The NCAA
In many parts of the country, college sports are a religion—canceling the season is unthinkable. But the NCAA has run into myriad issues in developing and communicating the return of athletics because, unlike pro teams, it doesn’t compensate student-athletes or allow them to unionize. Administrators seemed to think that gathering formal input from players would be unnecessary and obsolete. It wasn’t.
The NCAA’s major conferences have acted unilaterally, releasing schedules or postponing seasons without consulting the athletes. The exclusion of the most important stakeholders from that decision-making process has put the NCAA’s most controversial position—its staunch defense of “amateurism”—front and center. Athletes have seized the moment, with a group of Pac-12 football players publishing a powerful letter in The Players’ Tribune demanding an array of COVID-19 protections, revenue-sharing rights, and commitments to racial justice from the conference.
The NCAA and its member conferences’ failure to hear players out privately—in effect, forcing them to go public—was a brutal misstep. Whatever control of the narrative the NCAA had before athletes began questioning them is gone. Now, college sports fans see angry coaches, angry players, and conferences in disarray. Perhaps the best indicator of how badly mismanaged the situation has become is that now—in late August—onlookers still have no idea what’s happening to college football this fall.
The Ugly: The NFL
As of now, it appears there will be a 16-game NFL season. The league and players’ union agreed to an amended collective bargaining agreement in July and also distributed a 31-page COVID-19 education deck to all players. The league waited too long to remain ahead of the virus; unlike leagues that stopped midseason, they had a full six months between the beginning of the pandemic and the traditional start of the NFL season in September. The league reportedly operated “with the hope and assumption that its plans for an uninterrupted season would be bolstered by an ever-improving national response to the outbreak.”
In waiting so long to acknowledge that the 2020 season would be upended, the league has emerged with plenty of skeptics. Can rushed health and safety protocols hold up against a world-altering virus? Is a full 16-game season really a good idea? Can players trust a league that played hardball when negotiating testing?
Many of the skeptics are players themselves: 67 have opted out of the season. They and their colleagues got just two weeks to decide whether to play, and now those who have joined their teams are locked in. The league, meanwhile, remains “extremely determined” to push on—perhaps too determined given how nonchalant it was just a few months ago.
With a worldwide audience, unionized celebrity employees, and a cartel structure, sports leagues are unique enterprises. But even for much different organizations, there are some simple lessons to heed. First, include all stakeholders, especially employees, in your decision-making process around COVID-19, and communicate those decisions widely. This is not the time to appear secretive or dictatorial. Second, be as forward-looking as possible. Yes, plans will change as the pandemic unfolds, but don’t wait months like the NFL to communicate what those plans are. Finally, leave no detail unaddressed. The NBA and WNBA were extremely thorough in their health and safety protocols and their reaction to players’ social justice demands. At a time when life seems like one giant FAQ page, answering questions and responding to feedback in detail is a necessity for a successful organization.
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