After a slight delay from its usual release date, the 2020 NFL schedule arrived in early May as a signal of the league’s optimism regarding the upcoming season. Yet the shadow of doubt the coronavirus pandemic has cast across all sports in the spring and summer remains in place as the NFL inches toward what it hopes will be a complete autumn of pro football.
For the most part, the NFL for months has avoided the procedural challenges related to the COVID-19 outbreak’s arrival in the United States. Unlike leagues that were in-season when the pandemic shut down live sports, the NFL was able to proceed in a relative state of normalcy with free agency and the 2020 NFL Draft, albeit virtually.
But now it’s football’s turn to face tough decisions related to live action.
While the NFL’s original 2020 schedule should be taken with a grain of salt given the unpredictable nature of the pandemic, the league appears cautiously optimistic that the upcoming season will play out on schedule and, if things proceed the way the NFL expects, with fans in stadiums.
From Pro Football Talk: “Per sources with direct knowledge of both the NFL’s deliberations and the current and expected medical and scientific developments in the coming weeks and months, there is an ‘extremely small’ chance that there will be no NFL season in 2020.”
With the understanding that a myriad of coronavirus-related factors will impact the NFL’s plans in the coming months, below is what we know now about the viability of the 2020 season and how the league intends to navigate the challenges.
2020 NFL schedule
For now, the NFL plans to start its season as scheduled, with the 2020 season-opener on Thursday, Sept. 10, a complete, 17-week regular season and a full slate of playoff games before Super Bowl 55 in Tampa Bay on Sunday, Feb. 7. The league appears committed to sticking with that schedule until somebody says it’s impossible.
Of course, the NFL can’t be sure about how the effects of the coronavirus pandemic will evolve in months, weeks or even days. Which is why multiple potential contingency plans are being considered.
“I’m very confident of a 16-game season with a Super Bowl in February,” sports business consultant Marc Ganis told NBC Sports’ Peter King, adding an important caveat. “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.
“There’s more information that’s needed before we have these answers. Teams are just going to have be flexible.”
Others have offered similar suggestions that a delayed start to the season is on the table. PFT reported a delay of “a few weeks” could be necessary “in order to get to the point where the governors of all states with NFL stadiums will agree to opening the doors and letting anyone who chooses to attend show up.” (More on fans in stadiums later.)
Sports Business Daily reports the NFL could start the season October 15 and still have teams play full, 16-game slates. The report also suggests the NFL could eliminate not only bye weeks during the season, but also the bye week between conference championships and the Super Bowl. It would then use those bye weeks to push back the start of the season, and the Super Bowl would be played Feb. 28.
King believes “it’s possible the schedule gets pushed back a week or four, and maybe the byes eliminated. … It’s also possible the league could choose to start four weeks late and simply kick off the schedule with the Week 5 games, beginning Oct. 8, (then) take Weeks 1-4 and put them on the last four weekends in January.
“That would keep the bye week intact, which is likely important because the players union would fight to keep the in-season week off in place. In that scenario, playoffs would begin Feb. 6 with the Super Bowl on Feb. 28.”
Another wild card is the unknown status of the college football season. For reasons related to the draft, among other ties between college and pro football, the NFL hopes the college football season can play out just like it hopes the pro season can. But in the event the college season is canceled or moved to later dates, the NFL reportedly is “discussing the possibility” of playing games on Saturdays.
As a source explained to PFT, “that most likely would entail making specific games available on Saturdays exclusively via Amazon Prime or ESPN+, with streaming platforms paying a premium for content that would entice zealous NFL fans to in turn pay the premium necessary to watch the games.
“Those games would be removed from the Fox and CBS Sunday inventory, with the networks receiving a rebate and with the NFL expecting to make back that cash and more via the next wave of broadcast deals.”
If these reported contingency plans aren’t a clear enough indicator of the NFL’s caution when it comes to the viability and timing of the 2020 season, its recently communicated ticket refund plan is a solid reinforcement.
The Associated Press obtained a memo NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sent to all 32 teams. It establishes a policy for refunds should games in 2020 be canceled or played without fans in attendance.
“All clubs will have in place a policy under which, if a game is canceled, or is played under conditions that prohibit fans from attending, anyone purchasing a ticket directly from the club (i.e., season tickets, group sales and/or partial season plans) will have the option of either receiving a full refund or applying the amount paid toward a future ticket purchase directly from the club.”
The AP also reported secondary ticket distributors Ticketmaster and SeatGeek have pledged to the NFL to make refunds available in full for tickets purchased within 30 days of cancellation. StubHub will comply with the policy only where required by state law.
Fans in stadiums
Goodell in a pre-draft interview with ESPN explained it’s too early to speculate whether fans will be able to attend games when the 2020 NFL season begins. “We’re going to the things we need to do to make sure we’re operating safely, and that includes our fans,” the commissioner said. “So if we can’t bring fans into a stadium environment without being safe, then we’ll look at those alternatives.”
However, the NFL also remains focused on the preservation of competitive balance. Games without crowds early in the season followed by games with crowds later in the season, for example, might put the late-season road teams at a disadvantage.
Which likely is part of the reason the NFL has “a strong preference for open stadiums from Week 1,” according to PFT, which also reports “the league currently is confident that, by the time football season rolls around, the situation will have progressed to a point that people will be able to make informed decisions about whether they want to attend games.”
A primary issue pertaining to fans in stadiums is the varying degrees of lockdown measures in different states and cities. Live-audience sporting events in California, for example, will not be permitted until Stage 4 of the state’s reopening plan. California was moving into Stage 2 of that plan as of May 4, but many coronavirus-related variables make the time frame for the process impossible to predict.
Said California Gov. Gavin Newsom in April on the subject of live sporting events: “Our decision on that basis, at least here in the state of California, will be determined by the facts, will be determined by the health experts, will be determined by our capacity to meet this moment, bend the curve and have the appropriate community surveillance and testing to confidently determine whether that’s appropriate, and right now I’m just focused on the immediate, but that’s not something I anticipate happening in the next few months.”
NFL teams are preparing as though they will be able to host games with fans in attendance. The Dolphins, for example, recently announced Hard Rock Stadium is implementing a cleaning program that will “create the safest and healthiest environment possible.”
Yet the Dolphins also are preparing a plan that, if needed, would limit stadium attendance to 15,000 and account for social distancing guidelines. Among other requirements, the plan would prohibit concession lines (fans would order food and drinks from their seats) and force all patrons to wear masks.
“We would have times to come in for security at different gates so people would be separated out, in terms of when they enter the stadium,” Dolphins CEO/president Tom Garfinkel said on “Good Morning America” (via ESPN). “We would exit the stadium much like a church environment, where each row exits so people aren’t filing out all at the same time in a herd.”
In terms of the NFL’s ability to proceed with the 2020 season the way it hopes, testing is the key to, well, everything. In the absence of sooner-than-expected vaccine development, health experts claim COVID-19 is not going anywhere anytime soon.
According to PFT, the NFL believes that by August, “testing will be prevalent, the testing process (saliva or finger prick) will be simple, and the results will be turned around very quickly.”
That development would be important for the health and safety of NFL team personnel, obviously, but it also would be important for public relations reasons. The league can’t implement widespread virus testing and/or antibody testing if such a luxury is not available to everybody who needs it. PFT adds that “it’s expected that there will be enough testing for the general public to justify testing all players, coaches, trainers, etc. before they enter a team facility or a stadium for practice, meetings, treatment or games.”
Without widespread testing, though, the ripple effects of a single positive test in the NFL could wreck the season as planned.
Of course, even if adequate testing is made possible, there will still be risks, and NFL team personnel — players, coaches, executives and all — plus the league itself will need to weigh those risks.
“We’ll go anywhere the science takes us and nowhere the science doesn’t,” NFLPA medical director Thom Mayer told King. “We’re going to look at everything as long as it keeps all 2,500 players safe.”
In theory, widespread testing also would help fans determine whether their attending an NFL game is a safe decision.
NFL training camps and preseason games
In short: ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Simply because NFL training camps start so soon — in mid-July — the NFL faces a different set of challenges than those in front of the regular season. Most are related to the aforementioned differing restrictions in states and cities. Teams’ offseason programs, including rookie minicamps, are expected to remain virtual.
“At some point,” a team executive told King, “we’re going to have start accepting inequalities. What happens when teams in four states are told, ‘You can’t have training camp?’ Do those teams not have camp? Do they travel to a state that allows a gathering of 100 or so people to work?
“Time will tell, but the way it looks now, there’s no way all states are going to be under equal rules by the summer.”
Which puts the NFL in a tough spot. The league, remember, ordered all team officials to work the NFL Draft from home even though some teams could have operated in small gatherings based on local guidelines. Originally, all 32 team facilities needed to be allowed by states to reopen before players could return to any single one. But Goodell on Wednesday sent teams a memo that laid out protocols for gradually reopening team facilities by May 15.
- The following are some of the requirements for reopening team facilities, per ESPN:
- Receive consent from state and local governments.
- Acquire enough cleaning and other supplies.
- Create an infection-response team that includes doctors and team athletic trainers.
- Designate an infection control officer (ICO) to be the first point of contact for any employee who displays coronavirus symptoms.
- Provide coronavirus safety and hygiene training to all employees who will return to the facility.
NFL team owners are expected to discuss the reopening of team facilities during their virtual league meeting May 19, according to ESPN.
“Whatever we do is going to be in compliance with the governing rules of the particular state (of each team),” NFL executive vice president and legal counsel Jeff Pash said in April (via Yahoo). “More to the point, it’s going to be consistent with good and recommended medical and public health practices. … We’re going to treat all 32 teams the same way. We’ll do it in a way that does preserve competitive equity.”
As for NFL preseason games, which typically start just a few weeks after camps open, Falcons owner Arthur Blank has speculated that fewer could be played in 2020 — “which probably wouldn’t be the end of the world.”