The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the professional sports industry in numerous short- and long-term ways. Health and safety restrictions halted ongoing seasons and prevented others from starting. Leagues implemented intensive safety policies, doing away with and slowly reintroducing in-person audiences, creating safety bubbles for players and staff and changing rules regarding contact, for example.

However, many of the effects of the pandemic and subsequent responses have been far more dynamic and complex. These impacts have many ramifications for sports management professionals.

Courses in the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s online Master of Science (M.S.) in Sport Management program focus on many intersecting aspects of the field affected by the pandemic. From financial management to social issues, ethical considerations to administrative logistics, studies prepare students to navigate the changes COVID-19 has brought to professional sports.

Here are seven such changes, some of which may well be permanent:

Interactive Experiences for Fans

The shift to all-remote fan participation led to the development of virtual, interactive experiences for fans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes that “fans now have a more interactive experience than ever before.”

For example, “virtual watch parties” allow fans to interact with others all over the world while watching their favorite teams play. Some platforms allow fans to connect and interact with athletes in new ways. All of this can foster immersive fan experiences and a broader, more interconnected fan community.

A New Sense of Gameplay

Interestingly, removing audiences from certain events has given remote fans a better sensory experience.

For instance, having no gallery of in-person fans at golf tournaments means TV/streaming viewers get unobstructed views of gameplay. Empty football stadiums and hockey arenas are absent of overwhelming crowd noise, so remote viewers can hear what is happening with more detail, putting them in the middle of the game in a more immersive, auditory way.

Adapting the Draft

The pandemic forced seasonal events like the NFL draft to shift to virtual, remote productions. In-person drafts certainly have their own form of excitement for participants and viewers. But the virtual, remote model allowed for the more in-depth telling of players’ stories, connecting viewers with players and the event in a more personal way. Including more personal narratives may well be integrated into future productions as drafts return to in-person formats.

Changes in Scheduling

Many leagues had to alter schedules in response to pandemic surges and provide teams time to implement safety policies, equipment and procedures. Some schedule adaptations are not ideal, such as shortened seasons lessening viewing opportunities and potential revenue for teams and surrounding economies.

Yet, certain scheduling changes proved beneficial in some ways. As an example, moving golf championships to the fall made for beautiful viewing and weather, especially for tournaments nestled amidst the autumnal colors of the Northeast.

Decreases in Team Travel

Decreasing and altering travel schedules also had interesting positive outcomes. The series scheduling models (consecutive games with the same teams in the same market) adopted by some leagues help reduce travel costs as well as wear and tear on players and staff.

Similarly, limiting offseason travel and contact via holding offseason practices virtually and remotely meant less year-round wear and tear for players. Minimizing ongoing physical stress helps avoid the long-term injuries and mental burnout that can negatively impact players’ careers and lives.

Social Advocacy and Activism

Another interesting generalized impact of the pandemic is a greater focus on social issues. As public discourse surrounding social issues increased and shifted to digital platforms, a growing number of celebrities used their platforms and digital presence to promote social advocacy, activism and share personal reflections.

Notably, numerous professional athletes have led this charge, using their influence and activism to support awareness and action surrounding causes like racial justice, criminal justice reform and mental health issues.

Increased Focus and Investment in Women’s Sports

Gender inequities in professional and collegiate sports are also among the social issues highlighted by the pandemic. Athletes, journalists and advocates exposed disparities regarding investment in women’s sports (facilities, pay, promotion, etc.). This has spurred a movement in addressing disparities through regulations, changes in league policies, commitments to equitable investment and efforts to increase gender equity in youth sports.

From altered gameplay rules to virtual interviews and commentator panels, the pandemic has changed professional sports in many ways beyond those mentioned above. Pandemic-induced changes have certainly led to financial struggles for the professional sports industry. Still, many have also been a catalyst for growth and development in sustainable health outcomes for players, interactive experiences for fans and equity throughout the sporting world.

Learn more about the University of Wisconsin-Parkside’s online Master of Science in Sport Management program.


Aspen Institute: How COVID-19 in 2020 Could Impact the Future of Sports

SportTechie: How Sports Have Been Adapted Over the First Six Months of the Pandemic

Sports Travel Magazine: Sports Travel

The Washington Post: Sports Changes That Should Outlast the Pandemic

U.S. Chamber of Commerce: The Current and Future Impact of COVID-19 on the Sports Industry