Sponsorship Insights During the NBA & NHL RTP: Part 2

This article is the second in a 2-part series that examines the business of sports in the NBA and NHL RTP (Return To Play). The first article in this series can be found here.

After over a month in the NHL and NBA bubbles, it’s time for some insights in analysis surrounding the unprecedented RTP in these respective leagues.

The NBA generally leads the way in most league operations, and that was definitely represented here in terms of broadcast execution right up to social and racial equality issues.

The one major difference between the NHL and NBA bubbles is the venue. While the NHL settled into East and West fan-less arena bubbles to host multiple games, the NBA bubble created pop-up (so to speak) basketball courts at Disney World. The NHL model allows for “home” team dasher board advertising for each team’s respective partners, while the NBA court experience relies on digital inserts on the floor. At the same time, the backboard and hoop stand feature sponsor logos and messaging.

Dealing With Fan-less Venues

The NHL looked to solve the empty seat visuals by tarping off entire sections of the lower bowl while constructing large video boards on one side of the rink, above the benches.

The NBA bubble created a digital wall, the Michaelob Ultra Courtside, featuring streaming images and videos of remote fans through a Microsoft Teams partnership. Though a bit clunky (like a Zoom conference), it did provide a more dynamic visual element – whereas the NHL’s sectioned tarps feel like an under-utilized opportunity, especially considering digital insertion abilities that were previously used on plexiglass sections of the rink.


I must admit, I did hope to see more innovation in the business – but considering the monumental task at hand, speed to production – the term ‘unprecedented’ may be overused these days but it is certainly accurate.

One of the more interesting innovations was the NBA broadcast perspective from the court level sidelines, which was sponsored by Occulus, with new views for fans at the game level.

On the social media side – social media managers are very much used to dealing with negative fan feedback but I must imagine finding themselves in the uncharted territory surrounding the Black Lives Matter and social justice issues. As team and player accounts published content supporting racial justice, it was undeniably met with fan feedback in both positive and negative ways. The role of social in society has become an increasingly toxic environment and the issues presented by especially by Facebook cannot be overlooked in terms of free speech vs hate speech, propaganda and divisiveness.

The Black Lives Matter movement, social awareness and justice issues are far more ‘baked in’ the NBA bubble and though a day late, the NHL was forced to take on these issues in a more meaningful way that was bigger than sport. While sports teams have always been involved in strong community initiatives, this is an aspect that will not be receding any time soon – nor should it. The leadership opportunities presented by teams and players can have a great effect on public opinion and awareness – and in turn, this presents an opportunity to effect team/sponsor business as well (both positively and negatively). Teams should be getting in front of these conversations now, rather than trying to look past them.

The Big Take-Away

What can sponsorship professionals learn from this experience so far? How can we best plan for the immediate future of sports in the COVID-19 era?

Invest in digital. Plain and simple.

We simply do not know when the opportunity for fan attendance will return. While that immediately impacts gate revenue, it certainly also impacts the look and feel of live event presentations. Whether there will be continues use of league bubbles (looking at MLB continually challenged with COVID-19 rescheduling) or pending in-arena play for the NFL – there is one thing that we can all be sure of, and that is that we could be facing the same situation for an untold amount of time – the best approach is to develop and invest in digital and remote fan sponsorship opportunities.

The options here are nearly limitless – and that can seem intimidating. So here are 3 considerations for teams to start:

  1. Strategy: It has to start with goals – and this can be a challenge to determine. Whether these are revue goals, community initiative goals, engagement goals… The digital focus needs to be clear to everyone in the organization.

  2. Review and Upgrade Digital Inventory: What are you offering and at what rates? What are where else could you be active and provide offers? Review and explore not only platforms, social networks, direct to consumer and digital advertising placements but also collaborations, content creators and influencers. These choices will of course all relate to the strategic direction.

  3. Training: Does your sales team need a refresher on digital assets? Are your resources aligned with sales and creative to be able to produce campaign activations? This is a look at both hard and soft skills – great teams need to be effective at both.

It’s been 10 years since I first started working with sports teams on identifying and monetizing their social media and digital spaces. I know that for some, it may be overdue to revisit this as a priority. It’s not a time to wait and see and hope for a return to normal – this is a time to lean into the acceleration towards digital in sponsorship with an eye to layer the emergence from COVID-19 restrictions as they develop.

Sometimes it can be hard to see the opportunities through the challenges, but they are they present. The first movers will have the advantage in this space; the time to act is now.