The Super Bowl this year will be especially significant as the capstone of the National Football League’s herculean effort provide live sports entertainment amid a global pandemic that threatened to upset its season. The health crisis has been enormously disruptive, but has shown the power of live sports to entertain millions of fans while helping marketers reach highly engaged audiences.

“There’s pent-up enthusiasm going into 2021, and for when sports will finally return to a normal schedule,” Jason Wiese, senior vice president and director of strategic insights at VAB, said in this interview with Beet.TV. “There’s a lot of encouragement with the vaccine coming, and getting back on track for full seasons”

Last month’s emergency approval of several vaccines for COVID-19 has led to cautious optimism that 2021 will mark a major turning point in finally curbing the pandemic. There are still plenty of uncertainties about how quickly millions of people will be inoculated, but ideally, the number of new cases will decline and help to bring sports fans back to stadiums by midyear.

Restoring a more normal schedule for sports will help to lift viewership and give advertisers a way to reach highly engaged audiences at scale, Wiese said.

Source: VAB

“Sports is a core passion for most fans — 65% of avid sports fans say they feel ‘personally connected’ to their favorite team,” he said, citing a VAB consumer study. “Some of their fondest memories in their lives are with sports. Some have even cried during sporting events.”

Sports appeal to younger demographic groups that are more ethnically diverse than prior generations, and 40% of sports viewers are women, according to VAB’s study. Considering that women make most of the purchase decisions in U.S. households, sports programming can be a way to reach millions of key consumers.

“Sports have the ability to drive consumers right through the purchase funnel,” Wiese said. “Sports fans are more likely to be talking about ads that they see with their friends and their families. They’re more likely to be going on websites from ads that they see on sports to get more information — and ultimately, they’re more likely to buy the product that they see advertised.”

Lessons of 2020’s Upheaval

Sports leagues went through several stages of disruption last year, providing more insights into how fans consume video content., Wiese said.

After the NCAA canceled the Men’s Basketball Tournament, and professional sports leagues like the National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball suspended play, fans clamored for sports-related programming.

The NFL and Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA) reformatted their yearly drafts of college players as virtual events — and saw record viewership. ESPN saw the highest ratings for a documentary when it aired “The Last Dance,” a 10-part series about the effort by NBA legend Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls to win their sixth championship in eight seasons.

As leagues resumed play in summer, there was a surge in enthusiasm and higher TV viewership, though the schedule started to get crowded by the second half of the year. Amid scheduling changes, particularly for college football, fans were uncertain about game times.

“Some sports fans are creatures of habit,” Wiese said. “They expect to see their sports run at certain times.”

The crowded schedule led to some cannibalization of audiences, but Wiese said the shift was an anomaly. About three quarters (72%) of sports fans prefer to watch games on TV, where they can experience “front-row” action from the comforts of home.

“The fundamentals of sports haven’t changed,” he said. “Sports provides a sense of connection, camaraderie, community and commitment to a team.”

You are watching “Live Sports 2021: What’s Next on TV,” a Beet.TV + VAB leadership video series presented by Effectv, a Comcast company. For more videos, please visit this page.