Prospect of no fans in stadiums looms over 2020 season

With a little over two months until the start of preseason, the NFL is still staring down the barrel of playing the 2020 season with no fans. While some states are opening up and allowing the potential for fans in open-air stadiums, the final decision will rest with the NFL.

While Governor of Texas Greg Abbott raised the attendance capacity to 50% on Saturday for pro and college sports, it is still unclear whether the NFL will allow fans in any stadiums, until all stadiums are in the same position.

2020 season could be very different

If we ignore the impact that COVID-19 could have on whether the games will actually all get played this season, and the potential impacts this could have on the salary cap in the coming seasons, the very product the NFL puts out in the 2020 season will be different.

Other sports, Soccer in Germany and Rugby League in Australia are examples, have started pumping fake crowd noises through their telecasts of live games. While it has been a reasonable success, for the most part, the jarring nature of the experience when you can see the empty seats is a concern.

The nature of the NFL game means that the stands can often be seen in the normal shots. Having that simulated crowd noise when you can see there’s no-one there is a strange viewing experience. But when you can’t see the empty stands, it’s almost like we’re back in the good-old pre-pandemic utopia.

While there are still factors that are different in each situation, the heat in Texas or Florida, the snow in New York, or Wisconsin, the loss of fans will likely lead to a massive reduction in home-field advantage.

Unless there are travel restrictions put in place as we have seen in Australia. In the NRL, Australia’s premier Rugby competition, away teams have to fly-in and fly-out on the same day. While many NFL teams already do this, some, particularly east coast teams on a west coast swing, and vice-versa, often make the trip into a nine or ten-day trip to save players travel fatigue.

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Two main issues with fans for the 2020 season

At the heart of the matter is two key issues. First, the idea of competitive advantage for teams that are allowed fans. Second, money. Make no mistake, the money is a massive factor in the decision the NFL has to make about the 2020 season.

In 2018 alone the Dallas Cowboys made $950 million in revenue from AT&T Stadium. That’s basically ONE BILLION DOLLARS (queue Austin Powers meme). But seriously that’s some very serious money. While all of that is not profit, Forbes has estimated that the Cowboys would lose $621 million if there are no fans in the building for the whole of the 2020 season.

While the losses for most other teams are much, much lower, the minimum a team would lose would be the Las Vegas Raiders at $77 million. Now I’m not asking you to feel too bad for these multi-billionaire owners, but don’t kid yourself, as much as they love football they also love money.

For fans, the first issue, competitive advantage, is where their thoughts will lie. If teams in Texas are allowed 50% full stadiums, what about teams in California that may still not be allowed any fans? This surely magnifies the home-field advantage for the Cowboys. Not all bad I hear you say.

But the NFL is unlikely to let this disparity play out, particularly as for the moment, more NFL owners aren’t allowed fans than are. The likeliest scenario at this point is the NFL will peg capacities at the level of the lowest allowed attendance for a team.

In this case, that means we’re waiting for California, New York, and other states to relax their lockdowns more before we are looking at fans in stadiums any time during the 2020 season.

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