Why The NFL’s Plan For Fans Makes Sense

It is a little jarring to hear certainty in relation to the near and immediate future of American sports, and there is a simple reason for that.

Ever since the fraught and fractured days of early March, there have been a lot of developments, a lot of discussion, much speculation, a ton of nervousness — and nothing, understandably, in the way of definitive fact as to what we’re going to see again and when.

So, when Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross came out and delivered what amounted to an assurance that the pro football campaign will go ahead as planned in just a few months’ time, it provoked a couple of general reactions.

“I think there will definitely be a football season this year,” Ross told CNBC, in an interview that primarily revolved around the American economic fallout from the COVID-19 crisis. “We all miss our sports. The NFL, I think, will be ready to go. I know we are all looking forward to it. I know I am.”STORY IMAGE 1
The initial response, naturally, was one of celebration. After all these weeks of scraping the internet and the network archives for old sports, obscure sports, overseas sports and sports documentaries, the idea of a genuine, live, competitive football game is akin to slapping aloe on a sunburn. Aaaaaah.

But for many, it surely took just a split second for that to be followed by a, “Whoa, wait a minute,” because the national sports fan base has been scorched by all this, and optimism has given way to understandable caution. The doubt and confusion that has surrounded every part of life for more than two months has manifested a skeptical streak in all of us.

Still, while Ross’ words made a splash, an even bigger indicator of intent was given by NFL executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent over the weekend. Vincent’s comments got a little swallowed up by the holiday, and because they were paired with an admission that the league’s pass interference replay rule had failed, but he wasn’t holding back.

“We’re planning for full stadiums,” Vincent told NBC Sports, “until the medical community tells us otherwise. Now, remember when we’re talking. We’re talking about September … August, September. So, there’s a lot that can happen here. So, we’re planning for full stadiums.”
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Imagine it for a second. A full stadium, splashed with partisan color and heaving with cheering supporters. Weird, isn’t it? In one sense, a vibrant arena is a wonderful thought, but even when you look at old games and see fans bunched together, pressed against each other, breathing each other’s air, it puts the teeth on edge. We are not used to being within six feet of someone at the checkout counter anymore, let alone having people sandwiched on either side of us.

But the thing to remember here is that it is not the NFL’s job to look at it through the same lens as us. They need to transport their minds into the future and prepare for how things may or may not look and feel at that stage.

There are 107 days between now and the first scheduled game of the regular season, between the Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans, on Sept. 10. If you go back 107 days in the other direction, it would take you to the Sunday after the Super Bowl, back when the coronavirus was this thing you’d heard about on the news that was taking place in China.

We were still a month away from sports shutting down and life as we knew it changing. Devastatingly, nearly 100,000 Americans that were then living, no longer are.
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As a public, many people feel differently to how they did a month ago, and everyone feels differently to how they did in March. Who knows what things will look like in September? Who knows what the figures will say and what advances will have been made by then?

In a sense, the NFL is actually taking the safest and smartest course of action. It is easier to plan for full stadiums and work backwards from there, rather than get ready for empty venues and then try to move forward accordingly.

Furthermore, even at full capacity, there is the strong likelihood that things would not be quite the same as before. Would it be a full stadium of fans with masks emblazoned with team logos, all of whom have had their temperature taken at the gate, or been able to show proof of having tested negative? Later on, would it be a stadium full of fans who have received a vaccine?

Anything, and everything, seems possible right now.

“We also know we have to plan for half stadiums,” Vincent added. “Three quarters. So, we’re planning for all those different scenarios. But first and foremost, we’re making every effort working with the medical community, if we can have those stadiums with all people, until they tell us otherwise when that time comes, that’s our plan. That’s our plan of action.”
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Heart-aching though the tragedy has been, the point here is that it is impossible to tell what developments will have been presented to the country by September. The uniqueness of the current situation also affects our mindset in unavoidable ways. The more each day seems like the last, the more it seems never-ending, that we have entered an altered state where things will always be this way.

Thankfully, that’s not the case, yet it is part of the reason why restarting things like sports, which give us a point of reference to our calendars, are considered a priority for the lawmakers in Washington.

Sitting here, as the end of May approaches, it boggles the brain to think that football can go ahead with full stadiums in time for the start of the season. September seems so soon, life seems so disjointed, such logistics seem totally unworkable.

But thankfully, the problem is not ours; it is for people whose entire job revolves around it. The NFL is getting ready for the best case scenario, and adapting backwards from there. It is the right approach — and if they pull it off, it will show that things are close to normal once more.
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Here’s what others have said…

Mike Florio, Pro Football Talk: 
“This public statement meshes with what we’ve been hearing privately for weeks, that the league believes circumstances will change sufficiently by September to allow both for games to proceed and for fans to attend them. From advances in diagnostic testing to advances in antigen testing to a better understanding of what it means to test positive for coronavirus antibodies, it’s entirely possible that anyone who chooses to show up for games will be permitted to do so. … So, yes, the plan is to play the games and to allow people to fill stadiums to watch them. Although the weeks will fly by quickly from Memorial Day to Labor Day, the medical advances quietly but surely happening out of view will quite possibly allow football season to proceed as normal, even at a time when things don’t still don’t feel anything close to normal.”

Chris Cwik, Yahoo Sports: “While the NFL currently expects full stadiums, Vincent makes it clear they won’t force the issue. If the medical community determines it’s not safe to have a large group of people gathered together in a stadium amid the coronavirus pandemic, the league will listen. Vincent admits the league already has separate plans in case stadiums can only be half full. At least one NFL team is being cautious regarding ticket sales. The Pittsburgh Steelers are making 50 percent of their tickets available to fans just in case social distancing restrictions remain in place in August. Being cautious isn’t the worst idea right now. While the NFL expects full stadiums in 2020, the league is wise to have contingency plans in place in case it doesn’t happen.”

Peter King, NBC Sports: “I think if I ran an NFL team, or owned one, and Roger Goodell came to me today and said: ‘You’ve got a choice: open Sept. 13 with no fans, and gradually get them back in the stadium in October and be back to capacity by Thanksgiving if there’s no significant flareup of the pandemic—or wait till mid-October and start play at 50 percent capacity, with more fans in stadiums as the year progresses’ … I’d vote to play Sept. 13, on schedule. Because we just don’t know what the future holds. We don’t know if there’s going to be a second wave around Thanksgiving or later. I’d rather just play the games and try to get fans back when it’s universally safe than hold off, play four or five weeks, then have the disease rear its head and cause the season to stop. No guarantee that this will happen, of course, but if the environment is good to play, even without fans, I’d want to play.”

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