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Sponsors Will Take Different Approach to Sports Labor Stoppages

With Major League Baseball locking out players last week, the prospect looms of losing games to a drawn-out fight over the next collective bargaining agreement.

While everyone hopes for a settlement before the 2022 baseball season heats up—giving MLB and union negotiators roughly two months to reach a deal before spring training is impacted and three-plus months before the start of the regular season—practicality dictates planning for the worst-case scenario.

For corporate partners of MLB and its teams, that means reviewing any actual or on-the-drawing-board activation, advertising and hospitality plans for 2022 and developing contingency measures in case the season does not start on time on March 31.

It has been nine years since the last time a major U.S. pro sports league lost part of a season to labor issues. The NHL locked out players in September 2012 before reaching an agreement and starting a truncated season in January 2013. A year earlier, the start of the NBA season was delayed until December 25, 2011 due to a lockout.

Sports, marketing and the world itself have changed dramatically in that decade, likely impacting how sponsors will respond to MLB’s current situation.

To begin, the impact of losing games is now seen through the brand-new lens of COVID. It’s fair to assume that sponsors are more sanguine about the possibility of canceled games in one sport for a few weeks or even months after enduring the mass loss of live sports and events we all endured in 2020.

More important than their attitude is the lived experience of developing alternative plans and re-negotiating benefits, sometimes multiple times for a single partnership. Having made it through pandemic-impacted seasons, sponsors and their baseball property partners have baseline expectations and actual experience on which they can rely. At the very least that should keep sponsors from hitting the panic button and looking to exit deals at the first sign of cancelled games.

In addition to dealing with COVID’s impact, another major distinction from the situation NHL and NBA sponsors (and properties) faced a decade ago is the ability to turn to a host of digital, content and technology measures to provide alternatives to live games. Without access to players such content will have to be different from many of the virtual events and at-home videos we saw in 2020, but that shouldn’t stop marketers from using archival footage, contests, interactive games, etc.

Finally, with sports having its fair share of controversy, scandal, political fallout and personal bad behavior over the last ten years, sponsors have a decade’s worth of negative stories regarding the business side of sports—and the fan responses to them—to make them more comfortable navigating the choppy waters of a dispute already labeled by the media as a spat between billionaire owners and multimillionaire players.

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