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What Were the Top Non-COVID Developments in Sports from 2020?

3 Jan, 2021

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Let’s get this straight right up front: Nobody is sorry to see 2020 leave.

After all, the devastation the pandemic has wrought on our industry has been unprecedented – and completely unexpected (unless you were an epidemiologist, and those are thin on the ground in the sports business industry).

Nevertheless, there were distinct bring spots – and many developments that told us about some other directions to take into account. After all, with a vaccine in place and a better understanding of PPE and smart safety precautions, we can look forward to brighter days ahead.

And as those days come, here are some of the trends to follow:

The Rise of Cannabis in the Sports Marketplace: It was actually in the waning hours of 2019 that MLB removed cannabis from its listing of banned substances – but the impact continued to be felt throughout the following year.

In 2028, the Summer Olympics come to California, where weed is fully legalized. It is widely believed that baseball and softball will be among the showcase sports present (for a definition of those, read on in this article). If MLB players are among those on the diamond, it will be up to the World Baseball Softball Confederation, as well as the IOC, to decide how to handle the usage of cannabis among American players. While they have the better part of a decade to figure it out, it’s likely that by that time, the landscape of sports, as shaped by marijuana, will have changed drastically.

Dog Parks are the New Sports Fields, with Cities Adding Them – Months before COVID hit, the trend of having designated dog areas (rather than public sports fields, in some cases) was actively studied. The American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA) was able to quote a report from the Trust for Public Land, showing that the presence of dog parks in cities was up a whopping 89 percent since 2007. In some cases, cities were replacing lesser-used fields with dog areas, in deference to the demand.

The U.S. Military Made Some Tactical Switches: The U.S. Navy, long a commercial presence at the Super Bowl, took its business to a new playing field entirely – a digital one, where it said its target market tended to be found. Later in the year, when COVID-19 put the kibosh on the U.S. Army’s ability to do face-to-face recruitment, it came up with a new battle plan. This one involves an elite squad… of esports professionals. The new strategy plays out in (wait for it) Call of Duty tournaments.

According to WARC, the squad’s full-time job is to organize and take part in large-scale competitions involving the popular first-person shooter game that can go on for several weeks. The good news: It is working. In the first half of this year, the team generated a list of 13,000 potential recruits, defined as people who leave contact details and agree to be contacted by a recruiter.

In fact, recruiters are saying they have had more success in attracting prospective recruits through esports than by using more traditional recruitment methods – which up until now, have included having walk-in recruitment stations, doing presentations at schools and sponsoring booths at local fairs.

MediaPost noted that it was a smart move, since Gen Z, one of the military’s target markets, is fast becoming one of the key spenders in the economy: “Today’s teens and young adults have been through financial bootcamp. They grew up under the economic uncertainty of the Great Recession, and then took on student debt in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to then enter a digitized gig force with little promise of stability. So it’s not surprising that Gen-Z-ers have become as financially literate as they are technologically savvy. “

PGA Got a Competitor – at Least for a Little While – The early 2020 announcement of the upstart World Golf Group’s plan for a Premier Golf League got a lot of press, particularly with its note of high-stakes cash prizes in a season-long competitive event. The PGL intended to have a total of 18 tournaments starting in 2022, but PGA TOUR officials noted that in order to participate, players would have to request a "release" from the commissioner each time they wanted to play an event outside their home tour. Obtaining 18 straight releases was an unlikely prospect. Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy both noted they would not be interested in playing outside the PGA and that, plus the advent of the pandemic, took the sizzle out of the announcement. Will it return for 2022? We’ll just have to see.

Kobe Bryant’s Impact on Youth Sports Continues to be Felt – Bryant’s tragic death in a helicopter crash was a loss to the sports world – but few knew the athlete’s long-ranging impact on the youth sports community.

“In terms of youth sports, Kobe treated it as something that we need to pay attention to,” Tom Farrey, founder of The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program — which launched the high-profile Don’t Retire, Kid youth sports campaign last year with Bryant’s assistance — told the sports and culture website The Undefeated. “We launched the whole campaign through his Twitter account. With him having over 14 million followers, that really mattered.”

“I didn’t have to sell him on anything,” Farrey wrote in a blog post titled “Why Kobe’s Last Chapter Was His Best.”“ He was just in, eager to deploy his assets — his champion’s credibility, his social network, his advocacy, his international reach — to improve an institution that impacts the lives of youth.”

Tough Mudder Went into Bankruptcy But Spartan Rescued It: First, Spartan Race announced the acquisition of an exclusive option to acquire Tough Mudder’s UK, Canadian and German events. It was seen as the first step in an effort to bring together a complete merger of the two obstacle course race leaders. Tough Mudder had gone into disarray with the resignation of its CEO and reports of unpaid bills. By early 2021, the Tough Mudder site, with Spartan’s acquisition, was up and running again, with races beginning in May.

NCAA’s Emerging Sports For Women List Got New Entries:  Wrestling and Acrobats & Tumbling were added to the NCAA’s formal list, which also has rugby, equestrian and triathlon. (Fun fact: Triathlon needs 40 school programs to be elevated to championship status and is currently at 36).

Bass Fishing as a Varsity Sport: Somewhere between Super Tuesday and the COVID lockdowns, something was quietly happening in the Southeast that would be a bellwether for high school sports. Georgia became the fifth state to partner with FLW and The Bass Federation (TBF) in offering bass fishing as a sanctioned varsity sport. It marked yet another aspect of the paradigm shift in high school sports. It’s also an indicator that opportunities are emerging – not just for youth in non-traditional sports who want to represent their schools, but for event owners and destinations that are savvy enough to partner with them.

According to FLW, bass fishing offers unique chances for boys and girls to compete not only as part of the same school team, but against one another on other schools, regardless of gender. Additionally, there is no designated season, thus allowing students to compete year-round in both GHSA-sanctioned events and non-sanctioned tournaments.

“High school fishing is an incredible way for schools to connect with students,” said Dave Washburn, FLW Vice President of Operations. “It instills a sense of pride and belonging that so many students are missing today. It gives students a reason to get good grades and provides a competitive outlet for those who may not have the opportunity in other sports.”

Virtual Tryouts Allowed for Team Selection: Everyone from NFL cheer squads to youth hockey teams was using new platforms to try out and the process was not merely working but exceeding expectations.

By the time the Broncos application closed April 3, nearly 250 people had applied, Shawna Peters, the Broncos’ cheerleading director, told Front Office Sports. That’s 100 more than the team typically gets on an annual basis. What’s more, applicants were coming from a wider geographic pool, including plenty from other states.

“The second we announced virtual, I had a flood of registrations come through. I think it’s two things. One, people are at home and they’re thinking, ‘Well, why not? I’m sitting here, I’ve got time, and I can take the time to prepare,’” said Stephanie Judah, director of cheer for the Chiefs. “I also think it’s not as intimidating. Whether it’s a tryout in sports or an audition in dance, it’s a scary thing for everybody. When you remove the fact you don’t have to show up in person, it’s not quite as scary or intimidating.”

The PGA Debuted PGA U: PGA TOUR University was designed to create the pipeline that had been lacking between collegiate golf and the pro level, offers berths to the Korn Ferry Tour, Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica and PGA TOUR Series – China. 

According to materials from the organization, PGA TOUR University will reward elite collegiate play with varying levels of playing access to events operated under the PGA TOUR umbrella, “while upholding the principles and virtues of collegiate athletics.”

Currently, the only players eligible for the PGA TOUR University Ranking List will be NCAA Division I golfers who complete a minimum of four years in college. However, that fails to create an all-access pass since college golf is also played at the NCAA level in Divisions II and III as well as at the NJCAA, NCCAA and NAIA levels (as well as others) and at the intramural and club level, where organizations such as the National Collegiate Club Golf Association are offering tournaments throughout the school year.

Regardless, it’s likely that rights holders putting on collegiate golf tournaments may find their events gaining a whole new level of importance.

The High Cost of Flying the Confederate Flag: In late June, after years of turmoil and controversy, Mississippi ditched its flag, which included the Confederate flag in the upper corner.

The sage had been going on for years but in 2020, the call for change began to pick up. #BlackLivesMatter was a vocal force, and the SEC told Mississippi that if the flag did not change, the SEC would not host championships in that state. The NCAA had a longstanding ban against postseason play in Mississippi.

The logjam broke. In November, the state approved a new flag, featuring a magnolia (and the words, “In God We Trust”). The flower is surrounded by 20 stars (representative of the fact that Mississippi was the 20th state in the union), and a gold five-point star to reflect the statei's indigenous Native American tribes.

“If anything moves Mississippi’s needle, it’s sports,” noted an article in Sports Illustrated. “More specifically, it’s college sports. And even more specifically, it’s SEC sports.”

With Colleges Dropping Sports, Club Programs Expected to Grow: First came the news that a few schools were dropping sports teams here and there because of COVID-19-related budget cuts. Then a few became dozens and dozens became more than 100.

Club sports may be able to fill the gap, offering opportunities for competitive play to students. With tennis programs appearing to be first on the chopping block, Tennis on Campus, a national club tennis program offered by the United States Tennis Association, is likely to get busy. In fact, TOC’s director, Glenn Arrington, is already fielding calls from students who want to set up club teams.

“I've spoken to them and they believe free play for tennis on college campuses will be one of the most popular activities once school resumes,” says Arrington. “They are pushing for this too.”

Golf is another frequently targeted program, with eight programs being singled out for elimination and most likely even more, with some colleges fall sports and some cutting all sports. The National Collegiate Club Golf Association, which runs competitive weekend college golf tournaments for students during the fall and spring semesters (when varsity golf would also normally run), is likely to start seeing interest as well.

“We are ready to support any schools whose varsity teams will not be operating on schedule for sure,” says Matt Weinberger, COO and Co-Founder of NCCGA, whose overarching company, NextGenGolf, also manages separate club programs for high school students and for those who are entering the workforce.

Other organizations that sponsor club sports can similarly expect more interest. The National Federation of Collegiate Club Sports Leagues, L.L.C. (known as CollClub Sports for short) offers collegiate club programs in baseball (more than 300 teams across three divisions), basketball (men’s and women’s), softball and tackle football.

With higher-caliber athletes joining club sports, expect those championships to gain more attention – and more importance and as a result, to become more highly sought after by destinations.

The XFL and the Lingerie League Were Gearing Up for 2021: Mike Ditka had accepted the chairmanship of the old Lingerie Football League and Dwayne (The Rock) Johnson bought up the assets (and liabilities) of the XFL. And both actions could drive up the use of both indoor and outdoor venues in different markets.

Of course, both developments beg the question: Why is it that so many alternative football leagues keep trying to take on the NFL, or run a season opposite it – despite the overwhelming evidence that it does not work? Maybe it’s because that’s the American dream – an upstart with big ambitions who doesn’t give up in the face of adversity. And football (and taking on the NFL) does represent perhaps the biggest David-and-Goliath gambit of all. Here's hoping David gets to score this time.

A Football Theme Park in Canton, Ohio: Already a football mecca (it’s the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame), Canton. Ohio, is working on yet another way of marketing itself – and this one could be a game changer. The area is expected to become the “Disneyland of Football” compete with football-themed rides, a water park, hotels and retail. Expect it to be a major tournament draw, since it will be on the complex of, and packaged with, the Hall, its stadium and sports complex.

A Proposed Greenway Stimulus: The Greenway Stimulus takes the idea of building trails (which could then be used to host everything from foot races to fundraising walks) and turns it into an economic recovery package, not unlike the Works Progress Administration in 1939. In fact, WPA was a key component that put Americans back to work and helped the U.S. effectively crawl out of the Great Depression.

The concept was put forward by the East Coast Greenway Alliance. It is a straightforward idea: put people to work building a national network of connected walking and cycling infrastructure. Supporters projected that the effort would create 170,000 jobs in construction and planning and would generate up to $250 billion in local economic development. (And that figure, by the way, is a 50 percent higher return on investment than most highway projects, according to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials.)

Fewer MiLB Teams in Coming Years: Major League Baseball took over the management of Minor League Baseball, heralding a significant shakeup, with multiple teams standing to be eliminated.

“Everybody would like to be in a position to begin planning for 2021, but right now nobody is in a spot to do that,” Ted Tornow, general manager of the Clinton (Iowa) LumberKings, a Class A affiliate of the Miami Marlins, told the Quad-City Times. “There is no schedule to build around, no real guarantee about anything other than that negotiations are taking place and we all have to wait to see where it leads.”

Still, officials at some Minor League ballparks are firming up at least some plans to keep venues in use, even if not for baseball. Nitro Circus — an extravaganza featuring elite athletes in freestyle motocross, BMX, skateboarding and scooters — is expected to fly into 26 venues beginning in Spring 2021 and lasting into August. The events will take place in partnership with stadium concert producer Indigo Road Entertainment.

The Merger of Two Pro Lacrosse Leagues: Closing out the year was the announcement that two professional lacrosse leagues, Major League Lacrosse and Premier Lacrosse League, would be merged under the PLL banner. Unfortunately, that meant a net loss of five teams. However, it was noted, it’s likely that adult tournament play is going to be a lot more competitive this summer, with ex-pro players in the mix.

Esports is a New Discipline of Baseball and Softball: In much the same way indoor, sand and grass volleyball are all disciplines of the same sport, the World Baseball Softball Confederation came up with this shocker: Ebaseball and Esoftball are now considered their own disciplines of the sport. Oh, and so is Baseball5, the version of baseball played without gloves or bats.

Breakdancing, the New Olympic Sport: If your mind is still reeling about esports being a discipline of baseball, the announcement of breakdancing coming to the Paris Olympics in 2024 might knock it for a real loop. Breaking will join three other new youth-centric sports — skateboarding, sport climbing and surfing – in Paris, all part of the IOC’s master plan to recruit a stronger youth viewership for the Games.

This, of course, sets up the question: Why aren’t baseball and softball included in the Paris Games? The easy answer: Because those two sports are not really followed in France.

Each host city, under the IOC’s Agenda 2020, is allowed to choose a limited number of showcase sports.  These are at the discretion of the IOC, which must vote on them. As a result, Tokyo will showcase karate, baseball/softball, surfing, skateboarding and competitive climbing. Paris went with breakdancing, climbing, skateboarding and surfing. The Games that will be played in Los Angeles in 2028 will also be allowed to select showcase sports – but those are not expected to be announced for quite some time.

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