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49ers President on the return of live events: 'We have seen demand off the charts'

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Al Guido, President of the San Fransisco 49ers as well as the CEO and Chairman of Elevate Sports Ventures, joins Yahoo Finance to discuss the NFL reopening amid the coronavirus and what's next for live sports.

Video Transcript

- It's that time of year, the NFL season getting underway tomorrow night. Now, the league is pressing forward with plans to complete the season, played in full stadiums. We want to talk about what we could expect to see over the next couple of months. And for that, we want to bring in Al Guido. He's the San Francisco 49ers president, also chairman and CEO of Elevate Sports. And we're joined by our reporter Josh Schafer as well.

Al, it's good to see you. I know it's going to be an exciting couple or several weeks ahead of for you and your team. But just talk to us about what we can expect. Because we're coming off of an NFL season which was successful, in many ways. But we saw a number of games postponed because of COVID. So what are you doing to prepare for this season?

AL GUIDO: Well, I appreciate you having me on first and foremost. You're right, I am excited about the upcoming season. Last year was a season like no other. And we got all of our games in, it was a tremendous year, hosting the Super Bowl. Having all games played, even though some had to be postponed to later dates.

But I'm really proud of the National Football League. I'm proud of the San Francisco 49ers. We had a tougher year on the field. We had a lot of injuries, and we had to move the last 40 days out of our stadium to Arizona due to COVID. But we're excited for this year. We're looking forward to welcoming fans back to Levi's Stadium. We don't get to do so for two Sundays from now. We're on the road for our first two games, Detroit and then Philadelphia, and then back home on a national primetime game against the Green Bay Packers. But it should be a lot of fun.

JOSH SCHAFER: Al, when fans do come back to Levi's Stadium, what do you think is going to be different? What are you guys taking that maybe was a pandemic kind of thing that is going to stay and makes the experience different from 2019 to 2021?

AL GUIDO: You know what, Josh, I think the great thing is-- I always say, like, people ask me all the time, like, what has changed from a COVID perspective? And of course, there's the health and safety screenings that happen, which are a little bit different. But the rest of the experience, I would say COVID didn't change anything per se in the world of sports entertainment around how we operated, it accelerated everything.

And so if you think about it, mobile tickets were already a thing. Now it's a necessity. Contactless was sort of a thing, now it's a necessity. Cashless was a thing, now it's a necessity. And so all of those things, 49ers will see in our building, and frankly have seen in our building, dating all the way back to 2014 when we opened our new venue. But you're now starting to see that across the rest of the sports entertainment ecosystem, in venues and stadiums and arenas all over the world, where the technology that we're all using is just more enhanced than probably what we were using before.

JOSH SCHAFER: So when we talk about the return of live sports and the excitement there, what else can be done to get younger people who might be playing that thing they call soccer to watch football?

AL GUIDO: It's a great question. I got three little girls, they're 12, 10, and eight. And they are huge football fans. They're also huge soccer fans. Yeah, obviously we're not trying to take away from any other sport, we're just trying to add to it. Youth participation in general across sports is down, and I think we all have a desire to want to get more kids out. And that was taken away from a lot of us during COVID. I mean, not only they were not able to go to schools and they had to learn online, but they weren't able to play their favorite sports on the field, the ice, the court, et cetera.

And so youth fans, I mean, the NFL is growing dramatically, as it relates to not just youth fans in the United States but internationally. And I think when I think about the San Francisco 49ers, there's two ways to think about it. There's the 70,000 fans we entertain on game day, but there's 10 million-plus fans that are in our ecosystem, whether it's in our social and digital channels that follow our content, or frankly fans that we see on the road when we go to road games. And so it's an opportunity for the National Football League and all of us to really dive into each demographic and meet them where they are.

And youth fans are certainly in a different spot. They're not watching it on linear television. They might not even be consuming a full game. But they are consuming snippets of our content. It may be different than maybe what I might consume or my father or my mother my consume, but they are still interested in our game. And it's a real true opportunity right now. We have so many great stars, and the 49ers are lucky to have a lot of them, where we got to take their helmets off and get the fans that might not be the die-hard fans to really understand who these players are at their core. Because once they do, once they have that love affair, they're connected forever.

JOSH SCHAFER: Al, with that, what are fans looking for when they're coming back into the stadium to get fans in, right? To draw them to that live experience. What are you finding that stadiums across different sports, maybe even not just the NFL, what are teams needing to add to get fans in and get them obsessed with that live experience again, after we've been out of it for a year or so now?

AL GUIDO: Well, I think every fan is different, right? Certain fans, they want to understand the health and safety protocols, if they might be apprehensive of coming back. Other fans cannot wait to come back. We have seen demand off the charts from back to 2019 numbers. We've never seen ticket sales at this pace, at this pricing. And frankly not just for the San Francisco 49ers, but in the company that I run, Elevate Sports Ventures, we work with over 150 partners, both in North America Pro Five and collegiate, and ticket sales, pacing is well above where it was in 2019. So demand is there.

Now, the reality when they come to the event, I think it's not necessarily true, in a sense, that people like sitting at home on their couch. And like, yes, certain people do. But what we're finding now is in the youth demographic, they really like the social experiment. They really like being back at a sports game. They can't replicate that on their couch.

And when something has been taken away from you-- and we all lost it during COVID. We lost that going to a game with our friends or our parents or our kids or our colleagues. You forget how special that is. And for me, right, watching games with white noise in the background and no fans in attendance, it's just not as fun as it is with people next to you. There's no other place in America, frankly, no other place in the world, where within seconds you can be an instant friend with a stranger. And that happens at live sports events. You're high-fiving with immediate strangers next to you.

And I think that will happen all across the world at live events. We saw it with college football this past weekend. We've seen it with baseball. And now you're about to see it with the NFL. So I don't really think it's going to be that difficult. I think the question is, how can we sustain it for the long haul?

- And Al, we've seen a number of teams look for new ways to make money. Obviously, we're seeing this across various industries. But it's interesting what's happening in sports, and also what's happening within the NFL. Today, we had the news that the Jets had reached a deal with Fubo Sportsbook, just in terms of exploring opportunities within that space. Where are you seeing some opportunities with the 49ers going forward?

AL GUIDO: Well, there's no question that what they call the emerging categories are here, and they're here to stay, and they've evolved. And so if you think about it, at the national level, we've never seen such high demand for our broadcast rights. We just got done with our media deals this past offseason. Gambling, crypto, NFTs, we're all seeing it in the world of sports. Every different team is in a different part, or a different path on the life cycle where they're at right there.

Right now, for the 49ers in California, mobile sports betting is not there. And so from a team's perspective, there's different ways to engage with the legal sports betting community. We do have a partnership with Cash Creek, which is fantastic here locally.

But I think when it comes to San Francisco 49ers fans, I touched on it, which is, what are we doing for the 70,000 that are in our ecosystem, in our stadium on game day? But almost as important is, what are we're doing for the 10 million across the globe? And I think what you'll find now is not just in these emerging categories of gambling and crypto and NFT, but also what might become of international marketing rights for the National Football League and its teams. They're now about to open up those rights.

So when you think about the 49ers, some people might think about it as the 75-mile or 100-mile radius around our DMA. I think about it as an opportunity to really engage our fans across the globe, and to find ways to both grow that fanbase and also monetize that fanbase as a global brand, which is really what our focus is right now.

JOSH SCHAFER: And Al, while fans are back this year, COVID is still a topic. The Delta variant is still surging, and cases are popping up all around the country. I know the 49ers won't be requiring vaccines. Most teams in the league aren't, most stadiums and the league won't be requiring vaccines. Can you just walk us through what that process was like? What did you guys sort of evaluate there? And do you think that's something that might be fluid as the season continues on?

AL GUIDO: I think everything in the pandemic is fluid, for sure you know I'm not an infectious disease expert. So we employ on our medical advisory three of the world's most renowned infectious disease experts to help guide us at the San Francisco 49ers. And so we're following all local and state guidelines right now.

And Josh, I think everyone's in a different bucket here, right? When you think about California, northern California, northern Bay Area, about 80% of our citizens are vaccinated. And so that might be different than another market per se. And so while today we're not requiring that, we'll follow all state and local guidelines. I feel, and I think our fans feel based on our surveys, that they feel incredibly safe. They can't wait to come back to the venue, that we're doing everything possible to keep them healthy.

But you're right, it is a fluid situation. While it's not 2020, it's not 2019. And we are going to have to live with the reality that we are in COVID. There is no new normal. This is just the way in which we're going to have to operate as sports teams leagues and entertainment companies. And the reality is I don't have a crystal ball. I can't tell you what that looks like in the future. All I can tell you is that we will employ and work with the people who know the best. We will follow the science.

And right now in our community, our leaders have done a great job getting everyone vaccinated. Our staff is fully vaccinated. Those who are working the game days are fully vaccinated. We have one of the highest percentage rates in the NFL, from a player vaccination perspective. So I feel incredibly positive about what we're about to do this coming Sunday and throughout the rest of the course of the season. But we got 17 regular-season games to get through, and that goes all the way through January and then into February for the Super Bowl. So I promise you that we'll spend every waking minute working really hard to make sure our fans are safe.

JOSH SCHAFER: Let's jump to the Super Bowl. This just crossed, as you were speaking, the wires. NBC is setting a record for Super Bowl ad rates, $6.5 million. And they're also going to have cryptocurrency as part of the new sponsor categories. Any quick reaction to that? It's just up, up, and away.

AL GUIDO: Honestly, no, not surprised. I think when you look at what's happened over COVID, but frankly what's happening over the last five years. If you think about live sports and entertainment, and frankly what we're on right now, is sort of news, right? Those are the two things that are trending from consumption. Sports really is not an on-demand product, you're not watching it in replay, you're watching it live. And I think there's a lot to be said for the eyeballs, and a lot gets reported around this rating point or that rating point.

If you look at the National Football League and who's watching it, and who's consuming it seven days a week, and you think about the growth of that relative to precipitous decline, maybe, in other forms of content, it's not surprising to me that brands, partners, emerging categories and technologies are looking at the world of sports, to use that as a segue or to use that as an education and/or a platform to get their company more well-known, and in the hands of, frankly, people. If you're a B2C company, for people that are engaging in it. And if you're a B2B company, all of the partners and sponsors that are aligned with the National Football League.