Virtually nothing is going to stop the NFL from preparing for the 2020 season. That became evident after the league recently held seven rounds of the draft remotely.
But even as it vows to release a full 16-game schedule by May 9 and plans to begin the regular season the weekend after Labor Day, there are signs that even the powerful NFL is privately accepting it has no immunity to the consequences of COVID-19.
Under normal circumstances, the preseason schedule would be out by now. So, too, would the list of international games in London and Mexico. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell recently directed staff furloughs, salary reductions and cuts in the league’s pension plan as a brace for an economic downturn.
What the NFL has going for it is plenty of time on the clock, the longest countdown to kickoff in contrast to other pro sports leagues.
While there have been reports suggesting the NFL is considering contingency plans that include delaying the start of the regular season, an abbreviated schedule and even moving back Super Bowl 55 in Tampa several weeks, optimism remains high that the Super Bowl will go on as scheduled.
“We’ve been in constant communication with the NFL, and we’re totally focused on Feb. 7, 2021," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl 55 host committee.
More than 50 percent of the league’s revenue comes from television, the rest from corporate sponsorships and ticket sales. The last thing the NFL wants to become is the No Fan League. But concessions must be made.
Among the likely changes:
- Training camp. If the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still has rules to prohibit large gatherings or includes distancing measures, it is unrealistic to invite fans to attend practice. Players, coaches, trainers and support staff must have a way to be tested almost daily, at least initially. Many teams are used to housing players in a hotel during training camp, so creating a virus-free environment away from family and friends may be necessary. The league would have to decide what happens to a player who tests positive for COVID-19. Does he stay in isolation for two weeks? What about the other players and coaches he came in contact with?
- Preseason games. They’re useful tools for evaluation, but not necessary, so it won’t be surprising if the league cancels them. Teams may decide to conduct joint practices as they have done in the past.
- Flexible schedule. The league will need to make allowances for a possible abbreviated season. Divisional contests will be backloaded. The non-conference and interdivisional matchups will occur in the early weeks, preferably one home and one away. If need be, the NFL could chop off blocks of games or move them to the end of the schedule as conditions require. Each of the first four weeks would have to include alternating home-and-away games for each team, so if games are cancelled, the NFL maintains the competitive balance by going from 16 to 14, then 14 to 12 games.
- Fans. If fans are allowed into stadiums for games at all, there likely will be a temperature check upon entry. Seating configurations may change. If there is general seating, will social distancing need to be maintained, meaning fewer seats available? The NFL also could restrict attendance to suite or club seat holders, which are more contained environments.