As COVID-19 continues to plague all areas of society, those in the sports world are wrestling with the realities of altered norms for the foreseeable future. The NBA continues to discuss how to resume its regular season that has roughly twenty percent of it left, while Major League Baseball is in negotiations with players to get its season started. For sports fans who feel like basketball and baseball are doomed for this season, all eyes are now on America's most-watched sport, the NFL, and how the league plans to approach the upcoming season, slated to kick off on September 10 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City.
Objectively speaking, I am firmly convinced, barring the coronavirus pandemic significantly worsening in the next three months or so, that there will be professional – maybe not college – football this fall, and three significant factors have led me to this conclusion.
The NFL has time.
This factor is two-fold as both the present and the future should be taken into account. First, the present:
Since the virus shut down the world in March, the NFL has been the most normally functioning entity in the country, and by that, I mean that the schedule has not been altered in any way. Though it happened virtually, the draft went on as planned, garnering its highest ratings ever; free agency came and went as scheduled with teams able to close deals like every other year with a few hiccups; and the league released its game schedule for the upcoming season as it usually does.
Furthermore, it is the schedule release, the "future" aspect of this factor, that should give fans the most hope that there will be a season. As it stands, there are 118 days until the league is slated to kick off, giving the NFL the breathing room that other leagues are not afforded. The league will use this time to assess whether the contingencies, including a mid-October start, no bye-weeks, and Super Bowl LV being played on February 28, within the NFL's schedule release should be enacted.
Obviously, we don't know which of the plans will end up as a reality but the NFL's position thus far is clear: "we have operated as if there will be a normal-ish season, and we intend to operate that way until otherwise notified."
The fan bases have a large significance, whether they attend games or not.
Nevertheless, the question concerning fan attendance continues to be present. Obviously, fans add to the energy of a football game whether you're a player on the field or watching a game on television. But in the NFL, fans are not a necessity for having a season. For instance, in 2019, the difference between the largest average fan attendance (AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas) and the lowest (StubHub Center in Carson, California) is 59,179.
This is significant because limited fan attendance should not make-or-break a season because some teams (i.e. the Chargers, Bengals, and Jaguars) already play in stadiums that are not filled. Again, those in the NFL are proceeding as if there will be fans in attendance, which should further the basic expectation of a season. Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross and President Tom Garfinkel have already outlined how his organization would host spectators at Hard Rock Stadium.
Additionally, fan attendance has been down in the last few seasons, in general, while NFL continues to thrive. For instance, four of the twelve sports franchises that have seen drops in attendance over the last decade are from the NFL. Revenue from ticket sales, concessions, and other game day experiences by fans made up much less than a third of the NFL's revenue from the 2019 season. That money comes from another source - television.
The NFL has an increased focus on a televised experience.
One major reason, aside from absurdly expensive ticket prices, that interest attending games has declined is because of the constantly improving television spectacle and experience. As a result, the NFL has shifted the majority of its focus to television.
How focused is the NFL on television? In 2011, the league inked deals worth a combined $39.6 billion with CBS, Fox, and NBC to air NFL games between 2014 and 2022. ESPN also closed a deal with the league to air Monday Night Football through 2021 for $15.2 billion. The league also raked in $5 billion on advertisements during the 2019 regular season. Just based on those raw numbers, the league made $11.09 billion in 2019 and that number would expect to jump in the coming season. This matters is because the NFL likely would not turn down $11 billion dollars unless it absolutely had to. So forget fans at games, television drives the NFL's revenue.
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