The NFL’s vision for a full season that begins on time — or close to it — could be bolstered by nationwide advances in the coming months in the availability of coronavirus tests, people in and around the league say. Some say they can envision the season being played with strict protocols for the testing of players and coaches, with cautious policies guiding health practices for fans in stadiums and with teams and owners accepting competitive disparities resulting from varying state and local restrictions.
The league has said little publicly about its contingency plans but has acknowledged the need to adapt, most recently in a memo sent to teams Tuesday by Commissioner Roger Goodell. It said the league had “confirmed with all clubs” that their ticket policies for the 2020 season will offer fans full refunds or credits (on tickets purchased directly from teams) for any games canceled or played with fan restrictions.
“In preparing for all elements of the 2020 season, including the schedule release, we have considered the unique circumstances facing us this year and have been clear that all of our decisions will be guided by medical and public health advice and will comply with government regulations,” Goodell wrote in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “We will be prepared to make necessary adjustments just as we have in other contexts, such as the offseason program and the draft.”
The NFL, according to people familiar with the league’s planning, has been sorting through contingencies that include games in empty or partially filled stadiums, a delayed or shortened season, and games being relocated or rescheduled.
“I have every expectation that a full 16-game season is going to happen in the NFL with a Super Bowl champion being crowned sometime in February,” Marc Ganis, a prominent sports business consultant with ties to the league and several NFL teams, said by phone this week. “There are a number of permutations in that.”
President Trump has said that he would be in contact with Goodell and other sports commissioners regarding plans for reopening the country’s businesses. The NFL has been in regular contact with governors and other state and local leaders, officials say, as it formulates its plans. The league and NFL Players Association have been in discussions about protocols that will govern the sport’s operations.
The league sent a memo to teams Wednesday outlining protocols by which facilities can be reopened when any local restrictions are lifted. Teams were told to have the protocols in place by May 15.
Goodell also instructed teams in the memo to refrain from commenting publicly on contingencies regarding the season. Eventually, the league and NFLPA expect to develop protocols by which players will be tested regularly for the virus. Those protocols also will guide a team’s response if a player tests positive for the virus, according to people familiar with the league’s planning, but those deliberations are ongoing.
“We haven’t gotten that far down the road of agreeing to anything,” one person with knowledge of the discussions said.
Some within the league are convinced that a ramping up of the nation’s testing capabilities by the fall will enable teams to test players with enough regularity for practices and games to proceed without issues arising from comparisons to the public’s access to testing.
Fans in high-risk groups probably will be advised not to attend NFL games, even in stadiums that are opened to crowds, according to multiple people with knowledge of the league’s planning. One of those people said there could be protocols developed with steps such as temperature checks for fans entering a stadium, the mandatory use of masks and access to hand sanitizers, social distancing measures inside the stadium, no-contact concessions procedures and possibly checkerboard seating patterns if the number of fans allowed inside that stadium is capped by local restrictions.
But those protocols also remain a work in progress, even after the Miami Dolphins announced their planned procedures this week. A high-ranking official with one NFL franchise said nothing has been communicated to teams about a leaguewide policy for fans in stadiums, adding that it is “just too early to tell what will happen on that.”
The league cautions that it isn’t focused yet on training camps, given how much conditions could change by late summer, and isn’t concerned at this point that teams might have to be relocated during training camp or the season based on local conditions or restrictions. That possibility underscores the need for teams and owners to overlook prospective imbalances if the season is to proceed.
“There has been no discussion among owners about living with competitive inequities,” the high-ranking team official said. “I’d like to think that … premise is true.”
The league probably would be unwilling to shorten training camps because of injury concerns for players who already are missing offseason workouts. But some in and around the sport speculate the preseason could be shortened if needed, perhaps to as little as one game. There have been reports about the season being pushed back into October if necessary and the Super Bowl being played later in February, perhaps with each team losing its bye week during the regular season (which the NFLPA probably would oppose) and the off week before the Super Bowl being eliminated.
The NFL has pressed forward with much of its offseason business, from free agency to its remotely conducted draft, while in-season sports have been shut down. Now the league will have a chance to see what those sports do — and how it goes for them — before making its decisions about its season.
“The NFL has shown a remarkable ability to make adjustments as needed based on the virus while still moving every part of the business forward,” Ganis said. “There are very few businesses in the U.S. that can make that claim.”