Sports Has a Problem …Being Woke Ain’t Helping

Phillip Stutts is the CEO at and He is the author of “Fire Them Now”.

The sports industry is in deep shit. 

Since March, I’ve partnered with the largest data collection, analytics and AI company in America to understand the economic fallout from the Coronavirus (and subsequent lockdowns) + the Black Lives Matter protests and riots. 

Our four national consumer data insights reports analyzed 200,000+ consumer surveys, matched it to 200 million+ consumers, 550 million connected devices, and tracking 10 billion daily online decisions– all in one database.

Some startling insights have emerged in the data showing a major disruption to a number of industries.  

How is this impacting the business of sports? These two generational earthquakes (occurring within three months) has disrupted their entire economic model in more ways than you think.

Let’s take a step back first- according to our initial three Covid-19 Consumer Surveys, the industries that are most ripe for disruption are:

1. The Restaurant Industry

Do you remember the housing bubble in 2008? Yeah, the restaurant bubble is similar. For 20 years, this volatile industry has seen unprecedented growth. Until now. And even when we fully open the economy, a large % of the restaurant industry will disappear. Think about it — if you remove 65% of a restaurant’s seating and bar to be socially distant, there is no money to be made.

2. Brick and Mortar Retail

This industry was already heading towards a catastrophic disruption before the coronavirus. Many brick and mortar retail stores won’t recover from the losses incurred this spring (and the current slow re-opening of the economy). American consumers are being trained to buy online-only right now. All of this is going to be a huge hit for their industry.

3. Commercial Real Estate

If a huge percentage of restaurants and retail stores are disappearing, expect a major disruption to the commercial real estate market. In addition to the acceleration of shopping online, we are all being trained to work virtually. When life returns to semi-normality, expect an increase in stay-at-home work. This will further disrupt the commercial real estate industry. It’s not going to be pretty.

4. Social Media

Let me be clear, social media isn’t going away, I’m not saying that. But I’m reminded of an old saying that applies to the social media economy right now. Twelve years ago, social media “started as a movement, then it became a business, and eventually it turned into a racket.” A racket where most people have no desire to “connect.” They only want to show you how great their life is, and control how you perceive their life (which is better than yours) via pictures and video. Frankly, no one gives a crap about that now. If you post on social media about how amazing your life is right now (or impose your beliefs on others), you are tone deaf. I’m not sure where this downturn will go, but I do know that for the vast majority of non-substantive “influencers,” they will no longer make money by bragging about their lives.

But we are just getting started…

Since June, consumer sentiment has changed even more – not only due to the Coronavirus, but to the Black Lives Matter protests and riots.

And, this is where a disruption in the sports industry comes into play. 

You might think that when the Coronavirus blows over, we’ll get back to normal. I’d tell you the opposite…as Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast my friend.” 

A Harvard professor recently told me that the biotech industry (which he works in) believes there is a 5% chance a Covid-19 vaccine will be available in the next five years. 

If I’m to be optimistic, let’s say there’s a vaccine in a year. How long will it take to get 319 million Americans fully immunized (much less 7 billion humans) once it’s available? 24 months? Next, how long do American consumers suffer from the PTSD of living in a society with the Coronavirus for the next 3-5 years (at a minimum)?

This new disruptive emerging economy isn’t going away anytime soon and it’s going to have a massive impact on the sports industry.

Consider this…According to our data, the live events business (sporting events, concerts, trade shows – anything with a large crowd) is in deep trouble due to the consistent and overwhelming desire by consumers for capacity reduction (in order to feel safe).

But it gets worse….

80% of American consumers don’t want to attend a live event until there is a vaccine (ok ok, SEC fans may be the anomaly but they will probably only attend partial games due to enforced social distancing policies). 

To add onto this, according to our survey data, between 35-45% of Americans need a vaccine before they will actively take public transportation, book hotels (including Airbnb, Home Away, etc.) or order a ride share (Uber, Lyft, etc.). 52% of Americans want reduced capacity before they will travel anywhere outside of their state.

It’s kind of hard to run sporting events when leagues enforce social distancing policies and a portion of the customer base (fans) will also limit their attendance choices.

It’s not just the data, we’ve commissioned, IBM recently came to the same conclusion – 75% of their respondents said they were unwilling to be exposed to large crowds (for the remainder of 2020 at least).

How does this affect college sports? If the NCAA or conferences enforce limited ticket sales to attend games, what will fans choose? Outside events (i.e. college football) or inside events (college basketball)? 

The winner will be outside events because if “feels” safer. But that’s not the real point. It’s the second and third order consequences of these rules and choices that will further disrupt the industry. 

Expect ticket pricing to be far more expensive for outside live sporting events (which will prevent budget-tight fans from going). Athletic departments will face massive budget shortfalls over lost ticket revenue, especially when their football stadium is half full or their basketball team is playing in front of 1,200 fans.

The question then becomes, what sports within a college’s athletics program will disappear without the revenue generating subsidy that football and basketball provide? Can you imagine the lawsuits when women’s teams are cut?

But that’s not all…

When you add in the fallout of professional sports’ (mainly Major League Baseball)  inability to put aside their selfishness and get back to work – and you include the nuclear bomb exploding around Name Image and Likeness in college sports – you see these looming disruptions converging into a massive eruption.

This data I just described was commissioned BEFORE the protests and riots broke out too. When you take into account athletes imposing their woke opinion (outside of their sport), most fans will be (or are already) turned off. 

Oh, I know you want to cancel me for saying this, but it’s true, the data backs it up. If you love fact-based data that no one can argue with, well get ready to be armed.

The new study my data partner commissioned tracked how consumers view the recent protests and subsequent riots – and I see something that should make the sports industry very worried.  

The vast majority of consumers aren’t woke and they don’t want a company, brand or service to inauthentically preach to them about social values. 

If you are Nike or Patagonia, and you run an ad campaign based on social equality – the American consumer is ok with it. Why? They’ve been out front on this for years, far before George Floyd’s murder was in the headlines. 

But the NFL attempting to be woke? No. They are full of shit and we can see it a mile away.

Laura Ingraham has been excoriated (and called a racist) by the woke mob for daring to tell Lebron James to “shut up and dribble.” But the data is clear – the vast majority of fans just want to watch sports and not be lectured by a Gen Z or Millennial athlete. 

We commissioned this new post-protest data for our clients who’ve asked us about how Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X and Baby Boomer consumer sentiment surrounding the riots will affect their business – and how should they respond. My answer – you don’t need to do it with an inauthentic message– it will turn off the vast majority of your customers (you reading this carefully sports industry?).  

Check out this graph from our data survey and look at it with this simple explanation:

  • Composition is defined as the totality of the group measured. When you see “8% Composition,” it means, 8% of the group studied believes in X (or 92% doesn’t believe in X).
  • Index: Consider Index as a thermometer reading. The average American has an index score of 100 on any issue, brand, etc. Anything under 100 means the consumer doesn’t care at a high enough level and we shouldn’t market to them on that issue or message. If the Index is over 100 – that is considered a higher intensity level on that issue or message
  • A high composition + a high index = most important data to take action on.

As I look at consumers that prefer companies who donate to charities, engage in social programs or speak-out on important issues, a surprising consistency reveals itself. Around 87-95% of ALL generational consumers would prefer a company or brand not engage in this type of advocacy. 

Bottom line: It’s clear that a very small % of consumers want to hear about woke policies, activist issues, etc. from the brands and companies they consume or buy from. 

In fact, the activist Gen Z and Millennial consumer is more concerned with companies that are helping to reduce energy use, then hearing about them on social justice issues (the data is clear that the small group of consumers that care about social activist issues, are super-hot about it however). 

Here is what you are not hearing from the media right now – the loudest voices are actually a small minority. It’s Twitter world vs. the real world.

But there is one more thing you must know…

Our data clearly shows that consumers want to watch sports – ESPN doubled their ratings (according to our data) during April’s “Last Dance” marathon. Live Streaming (in general) is growing at an unprecedented level. The “want” for sports is as high as it has ever been.

But when the sports industry’s live events model is being completely disrupted, fans don’t feel safe. And when the industry’s leadership (owners and players) focus less on playing sports, than on telling you how to think and feel, it’s clear that they are heading towards very troubling waters. 

This moment is not without precedent either. During the 2016 presidential campaign a subset of voters around the country, especially in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, were too fearful to express their support for Donald Trump. They were worried about how the woke mob would take them down for giving their honest opinion. But these voters had the last word on Election Day – propelling Trump to victory in an electoral college landslide. 

Consumers are equally scared to voice their opinion right now, but they soon will – with their wallets. Athletes that support the cancel culture mob will severely damage their sport, their brand and their bank accounts. 

Fans clearly want sports to bring us together. The sports industry would be smart to follow the data, before it’s too late.

The various data reports cited can be downloaded for free: Just go to, click on the “Covid-19 Consumer Research” tab on the top front page. 

One Comment

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  1. Hey Phillip,
    I agree with your premise (“Sports Has A Problem”) to be sure, though throwing in the “kitchen sink” (commercial R/E, bricks and mortar retail, restaurants) took the steam out of what I was hoping would be something cutting edge. Perhaps an editor wrote the headline.
    I’m sorry to sound this way, but consumers of sports aren’t afraid to voice their opinions right now; they can’t…there’s no sports to consume. I daresay the leagues and the players know well the data they need to follow, and reduced viewership and lower attendance numbers have already been baked into their calculations. Thank you for this article!
    Best wishes,

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