2020 has been a most unusual year for all. Covid-19 has impacted all aspects of daily life across the globe, affecting jobs, schools, relationships and hobbies. The retail sector has suffered with closures and lower spends, the entertainment sector has had to suspend filming and the release of new films in cinemas has been pushed back or released on streaming services. The professional sports sector has not fared much better. From early March, professional sports leagues have been suspended as global lockdowns have been enacted, and a return to the stage for certain sports has meant becoming Covid-secure and implementing a number of changes.
For the NFL, this was felt keenly from the outset; the off-season activity has had to be changed significantly. First off were the changes to the NFL Draft. Ordinarily a huge event; in 2019 the draft lasted three days, attracted 600,000 fans in Nashville, and a TV audience of 47.5 million, in 2020 all public events associated with the Draft were cancelled, and it was televised, with no fan presence in the stadium. All pre-season games were canceled. The NFL is also expected to suffer financially: in 2019, revenue for the NFL was in excess of US$16 billion, and it expected to fall by US$4 billion in 2020. Revenue will also be affected by virus testing for players and team staff, estimated to cost around US$75 million.
Nonetheless, on the 10th of September 2020, the NFL season kicked off. A number of changes were implemented to ensure player and fan safety. Strict protocols have been put in place for self-isolation and testing for anyone on the team (players or support staff) who display symptoms, have been in contact with those displaying symptoms, or test positive. Another major change will be not having fans in stadiums. Most teams have decided to play to empty stadiums, with some (just 6) planning to allow a very small number of fans to attend in a socially distanced manner. The international games, played in Mexico City and London, have been relocated to mainland USA. Teams are also allowed to have an additional four standby players (so 6 in total rather than the usual 2) to allow for any absence due to the pandemic.
As the events cannot be followed in person, the NFL has had to adapt and find new ways of engaging fans on a remote basis. There has always been a steady following on a remote basis, particularly the halftime show, famous world-wide with both fans and non-fans. The NFL is also going to be pumping in piped crowd sounds into empty stadia to keep the excitement going and create an atmosphere for those watching at home, as well as to help encourage the players. Despite a predicted drop in revenue, the 2020 NFL season is still expected to generate upwards of US$12 billion, by no means a small amount of money.
A lot of the revenue earned for the NFL season comes from sponsors and advertising, as well as from merchandising and fantasy football. Another contribution to the NFL’s overall revenue is due to regulated sports betting. With several states now regulating sports betting and the NFL being one of the most popular sports across the country, many are now placing a bet on their favoured team to win a match or season. With betting operators wanting to attract fans, the league will earn profits from advertising and sponsorship as well as increased media consumption. This year’s betting on the NFL has an added twist in that Covid has the potential to disrupt line-ups at short notice and without much prior warning, and teams find themselves without key players. Punters are advised to to keep up to date with match updates and odds to avoid any betting disruptions.
Crowd noises will be pumped through stadium speakers to retain the atmosphere (Image source: Unsplash)
The very nature of football, and the nature of the virus, means that it will be difficult to contain the spread. Measures in place can only go so far, and there is contact in both practice and in games, and is it not practicable for players to wear masks at all times. This has meant that recently there have been a number of players in numerous teams who have tested positive which has impacted not just the line-up, but the games schedule overall. In week four of the season, the Steelers and Titans game was canceled after a total of 18 team members (players and support staff) on the Titans Team tested positive. The Patriots and Chiefs game was also postponed after there were positive tests on both teams, including Cam Newton, QB for the Patriots who had been quarantining in the run-up to the season to ensure fitness to play. This is of course on top of the usual injuries that face players; O. J. Howard has reportedly ruptured his Achilles tendon, ending his NFL season.
Lastly, the pandemic has changed the way the game is reported, with restrictions on media access to coaches and players. Reporters are no longer allowed on the field or in the locker rooms, press conferences are limited to once a week and reporters are now no longer able to get a feel for the game, the mood of the players, and the overall vibe of how people are feeling. There is no way of getting a feel for the atmosphere on the field as there are now no people on the sidelines to talk to. Nonetheless, the NFL has built up enough cult status and has been able to implement a number of changes to make the 2020 season Covid safe, where a number of other sports have canceled or postponed their seasons, to ensure that 2020 will merely be a small blip on the radar, and will be able to bounce back.