The biggest questions facing the NFL during the COVID-19 crisis
In the midst the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL is the only major sports league in the United States operating as if its season might play out normally.
The NBA, NHL, and MLB all suspended play in March, while the NFL chugged along in the offseason, held a virtual 2020 NFL Draft, and conducted free agency.
While commissioner Roger Goodell is optimistic the NFL’s 101st season will kick off Sept. 10 as planned, he is far from naïve about the obstacles the league could face with the health crisis in the fall.
Let's explore the most significant hurdles the NFL must overcome in light of the coronavirus and outline the contingency plans in place, should the schedule be postponed.
Player health and safety
One of the main issues the NFL will need to tackle is testing, the same topic the rest of the workforce must address in order to return to normalcy.
Without the ability to accurately determine which players, coaches, or team personnel might have the coronavirus in their system, it is impossible to create a safe environment for teams to conduct practices and compete in games.
COVID-19 research has come a long way since Utah Jazz star Rudy Gobert tested positive for the virus in mid-March, before a regular-season NBA matchup, but we’re talking about progress over the course of just a couple of months. There are still many uncertainties surrounding the disease.
According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, football gives the virus ideal conditions to spread. The contact sport requires a large number of players and staff on the field at one time, and the season takes place in the fall, when some medical experts predict a second, possibly more vicious, wave of COVID-19.
Without ample and reliable testing equipment to detect the virus before practices and games, the league can’t function safely.
Teams began holding organized team activities (OTAs) virtually April 20, but full practice is forbidden, until all 32 franchises are allowed to gather publicly, in accordance with their state’s COVID-19 guidelines.
Goodell issued a league-wide memo that permitted the partial opening of team facilities May 19. However, the coaching staff isn’t allowed in those facilities, and the only players permitted inside are those rehabbing injuries or seeking medical treatment.
It’s possible that training camp, originally slated for mid-June, could be delayed if some states with NFL franchises are further behind in the reopening process. If that’s the case, players could have less time to prepare for the start of the regular season in mid-September, and their physical conditioning could be affected, which increases the chance of injury.
One option being floated is to send teams in states with stricter social-distancing guidelines to a training facility out of state. But would such an option put the displaced teams at a disadvantage, compared to those who get to practice at their home facilities?
There’s no clear-cut answer at the moment, but if players aren’t able to step on the field for practice anytime soon, the quality of play, and player safety — from an injury standpoint — could take a hit across the league.
The 2020 schedule
According to Pro Football Focus, sources with direct knowledge of the NFL’s deliberations indicate there is an “extremely small” chance of no 2020 season.
The league is aiming for a Sept. 10 season opener and a full, 17-week regular season, along with a complete playoff schedule, which would culminate with Super Bowl LV in Tampa Bay on Feb. 7.
The only major schedule change, thus far, is the removal of international games in London and Mexico City for the upcoming season.
In an interview with NBC Sports’ Peter King, sports business consultant Marc Ganis stated: “I’m very confident of a 16-game season, with a Super Bowl in February. ... I didn’t say I was confident in 16 games with a bye, or what week in February the Super Bowl would be, or if every team will play eight games in their home stadiums, or whether there will be fans at every game.”
It's feasible the NFL could delay the start of the season and push Week 1 to mid-October. All 16 games on schedule could still be played, with some rearrangement, but the bye week would be eliminated. The break between the conference championships and Super Bowl could also be removed, and the new Super Bowl date would be Feb. 28.
Under ideal circumstances, the NFL would not only start its season on time, but have each stadium packed to the brim with fans. That doesn’t seem realistic, but the league isn't nixing the idea just yet.
It’s more likely a limited fan capacity will be put in place during the regular season, though another alternative is to utilize a backup stadium to host games, if the primary venue is not available.
The diminished crowd will certainly affect competition, as players are accustomed to raucous fan noise as part of the gameday atmosphere.
It’ll also significantly impact team revenue, with franchises standing to lose between $70-$100 million on ticket sales alone, but canceling the season would result in billions in losses.
As much as Goodell and team executives would like it, the 2020 NFL season probably won’t play out as normal. But regardless of a delayed schedule or fewer fans in attendance, there is no question the season will happen, one way or another.