Since the COVID-19 pandemic reached American shores, professional sports has been part of the story. From NBA players testing positive to leagues shutting down and championship tournaments being canceled, the world of sports was the first to have to make major public adjustments to their schedule and protocols.
Now, one of those pro sports leagues is being criticized for having a “patchwork” response to the pandemic. The National Hockey League’s chief medical officer, Dr. Winne Meeuwisse, says he expects “differences” of impact across the league’s 31 different markets. Dr. Meeuwisse says this uncertainty means it’s impossible to say if and when practices might resume. Meanwhile, his colleague, Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said the league “holds out hope that at some point we’ll be able to resume play…” He added that it’s too early to tell, a sentiment Dr. Meeuwisse echoed.
This was a tough message for NHL fans to hear, especially given how uncertain everything is at the moment. Dr. Meeuwisse explained the rationale behind the decision, saying, “The virus is just entering the rapid acceleration phase in North American… We want to do our part to protect our players and our staff and our fans… It’s difficult to predict what the timeline will be.”
Managing this, while managing player and fan expectations is difficult in any major business, but very challenging in a league with multiple franchises and players from countless different countries around the world. The league had to decide if and when to allow foreign players to travel to their home countries, then work on a testing protocol for when they wish to return. This was put into effect even as the United States and Canada put longer quarantine protocols in effect for people traveling back from Europe, which is home to many NHL players.
From a public relations perspective, this is another example of just how difficult and interesting message craft can be under these circumstances. Consistency and clarity remain vital, but considerations must be made for local employees, players, fans, and investors, all of whom just want the players back on the ice as soon as practically possible.
One of the key dynamics for NHL officials is managing that consistent message. With many players, coaches and employees and owners with opinions, multiple different civic regulations and ordinances being passed in different markets, as well as two countries working on federal laws that will impact the league, there are many dots to connect and questions to answer before a single coherent message is sent out.
Dr. Meeuwisse cut right to the heart of the matter with this: “We have to understand what the risks are for the different groups: the players, the staff required to run an event, the fans… Once we know those things, we can make a more intelligent decision.”
This message offers clear metrics, clear goals, and clear delivery… smart PR in a very hazy time.