Despite the Coronavirus still not being under control in the United States — Tuesday marked the second biggest single-day increase in cases since the pandemic was first reported in the U.S. — the NFL is optimistic that it will hold its 2020 season. Adjustments will still be necessary in order to create a safe environment for players and coaches, though, be they in the form of the league’s hygiene and social distancing protocols or by adjusting practice procedures and possibly preseason schedules as well.
Another option the league has is to open the season without fans in the stands in order to risk exposure to the virus for both those in attendance and team personnel. However, the NFL going that route does not seem to be a given if a recent report by Daniel Kaplan of The Athletic is to be believed: the league is apparently planning to defer its decision to local authorities and the social distancing guidelines that have been implemented.
Essentially, this gives teams an ability to decide on their own how many fans they would allow in:
The NFL will let teams set different attendance capacity limits when the schedule starts in August with the preseason, meaning some clubs could play in front of full, or nearly full stadiums and some before no fans. [...] The league communicated to clubs that they follow local health COVID-19 guidelines on social distancing rules, which vary greatly state to state and are not always, arguably, in line with the trend line of local coronavirus cases. In other words, as of now, the NFL will not dictate capacity thresholds no matter the virus penetration on the ground.
Despite the pandemic having forced a shutdown of all team facilities and a cancelation of on-field workouts during the offseason, the NFL has mostly followed its business as it would in any other offseason. It will likely continue to do so moving forward. That includes planning to have fans in the stands once the regular season is kicked off in early September — something that was reiterated by the league’s executive vice president of football operations, Troy Vincent, during an appearance on The Brian Mitchell Show last month.
Why the league would want fans in attendance is easy to guess: the NFL could be looking at massive revenue losses if the 256 regular season games and 13 playoff contests are played in front of empty stands. Estimates for how much money the league could lose if that were the case range from between $1 billion to up to $3 billion. Teams being able to rely on local guidelines to possibly have at least some fans in attendance once the season gets kicked off, however, would potentially limit those losses to some degree.
That said, those plans are controversial.
Not only has the league classified only 12 of its 32 teams in the low-risk category for the pandemic, it also has seen a recent increase in cases. Players with the Dallas Cowboys, Houston Texans, San Francisco 49ers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers recently tested positive, as cases in some states have soared over the last week. Among those hit hardest are Arizona, Florida, Texas and California — states that are home to a combined nine NFL franchises.
The risk of creating hotbeds for the virus by allowing fans in especially in comparatively loosely regulated states such as Florida is not the only concern about the league’s current plans as Kaplan pointed out:
That could lead to questions about competitive equity, and whether the league should allow teams in empty or near-empty stadiums to pipe in crowd noise when the opposing team is on offense.
Take the New England Patriots as an example. Massachusetts has implemented some of the strictest anti-Coronavirus rules, which led to a successful flattening of the curve so far. That said, under the reopening plan presented by Gov. Charlie Baker and his administration, large venues would not be allowed to open their doors again until the fourth and final phase — the state is currently in Phase 2, for comparison — is reached:
Given that there is no clear outlook when the next phases of this plan are reached, this could possibly put New England at a different timeline than other teams in the league. If the NFL therefore follows through on its plan — something that does seem somewhat unlikely given the recent developments and increase in cases all over the nation — the Patriots could have fewer fans in the stands this year than other teams.
The team itself, on the other hand, is preparing for the new season as if fans will be in attendance. A recent letter sent to season ticked holders, for example, stated that the Patriots “remain optimistic for the return of football” and would be “preparing to play each home game as scheduled in front of our Season Ticket Members this fall.” Nevertheless, the organization did give give at-risk season ticket holders the option to skip the 2020 season but still hold onto their seats for 2021 and beyond.