How Advertisers are Adjusting to Fanless Sports

July 14, 2020

Global sports sponsorship rights-fees may fall some 37% – from $46.1 billion in 2019 to $28.9 billion in 2020 – as the result of COVID-19, according to projections by Two Circles, a sports agency whose analytics are used by the NFL, Premier League, and over 300 other organizations.

It’s not just affecting rights-holders. For media sellers in the U.S., a lack of live sports has eliminated regular-season game ad investment for basketball, hockey, soccer and baseball, plus weekly events for golf and car racing. But the biggest loss for networks comes from the brand spend anticipated from the postseason – the lucrative NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament (over $941 million in TV ad spend in 2019), and at least delayed the NBA Playoffs and NHL’s Stanley Cup Playoffs (over $800 million and over $450 million in TV ad spend, respectively, last year), per our TV ad intelligence partner

For brands seeking exposure with sports fans, the pandemic has been a barrier between them and brand exposure to key audiences. Venues, teams and other rights-holders are now creatively working to reunite them with fans from afar.

The Opportunity: Fanless Sports

While a return to fan-packed stadiums is a thing of the distant future, properties don’t have that kind of time to recoup their losses. That’s why we’re seeing a return to live televised sports – without the fans. Several sports have come back, and all have done so without spectators (well, all that I’m aware of except for rugby in New Zealand).


Soccer is back, and in Europe, all eyes were on the foray made by Germany’s top-tier league Bundesliga, which came back with its first fanless “ghost game” on May 16. Bayern Munich and F.C. Union Berlin faced off in a 22,000-capacity stadium that was nearly empty, apart from players, staff, and security.

Fans undoubtedly noticed the eeriness of sounds normally drowned out by the crowd. The sound of the ball being kicked, for example. But to sponsors, that was the sound of renewed connection with fans, and of reinvigorating sponsorships that had gone largely unused since the league was suspended.

And those empty seats may actually present a unique opportunity.

We talked with our sponsorship analytics partners at GumGum Sports, who estimate a potential of €2.7m in Sponsor Media Value across television broadcast in Germany that could have been sold to brand partners.

Soccer games have now resumed in Germany, Italy, England and France, presenting opportunities to venues in Europe to increase brand awareness in the stands.

In Italy, some soccer teams have thought up innovative ways to avoid the sadness of having to play in front of empty seats. Lazio, one of the two top-division teams in Rome, came up with an idea of fans purchasing cardboard cutouts of themselves to be placed in the stands, with proceeds going to the Red Cross.


In the U.S., one of the first major sports to return since the Coronavirus shutdown was NASCAR, whose Real Heroes 400 race on May 17th drew nearly 6.3 million sports fans back to live television.

In an effort to provide additional return on investment to its sponsors, NASCAR says it will experiment with a radical paint scheme format for the July 15th All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Instead of having car numbers on the door panels, the numbers will be pushed back against the rear wheels to provide more space on the side of cars for logo placement, according to AutoWeek.

Speedways, meanwhile, are investigating ways to make the most of potential branding exposure that open seats now present. While restrictions may keep the seats empty, the camera-visible ones offer a new opportunity for sponsor placements, and it could be big. Using their White Space technology, our partners at GumGum Sports determined the currently unbranded grandstands accumulated 53 minutes of exposure duration equating to $3.4M of sponsor media value that could have been sold to brand partners.

“Although The Real Heroes 400 did not feature grandstand signage, leagues and teams can leverage these empty stands to drive additional value for sponsors by utilizing a branded tarp or digital overlay,” GumGum said in its evaluation.

And unlike other contact sports, Nascar drivers are required to wear masks, providing opportunities for sponsors as well.


The number of fanless Golf tournaments is growing. Multiple US competitions including the PGA Tournament in August will not allow spectators. But the show must go on and the organization has taken precautions to protect its athletes.

Golf’s sponsors will rely on product placements as the games will be televised. Overall Golf has a large number of fans and program officials expect an increase in viewership, as all sports have been placed on hold during the last few months.

From there, all types of advertising methods are used to push sponsors to continue to bid for placements. As mentioned, product placements and AI will be some of the most popular ways to track and show value of the partners of tournaments like the PGA. Commercials will also be important to revenue streams for the Golf Channel and the PGA Tours.


The NBA has created a safety ‘bubble’ for its players as the team resume July 30 in Orlando. Other events looking to start back up include the Indianapolis 500 which is scheduled for August, The Kentucky Derby which will run in September and the Masters, now in November.

Overall the sports industry has taken a large hit due to the repercussions of COVID-19. But experts believe that the sports industry will thrive in the long term. All sectors and all sports will rely on the best sponsorship vehicles to grow their business.

If you’re interested in connecting with marketers seeking sponsorship exposure, Winmo is here to help you build corporate partnerships. Request more information for your team here.

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