With the prospect of empty stadiums, how will the NFL move forward?

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With the prospect of empty stadiums, how will the NFL move forward?

Ridiculous. Unthinkable. A science fiction film. How could meaningful professional football games be played in cavernous NFL stadiums full of empty seats?

Steve Young knows how.

“I’ve been through it,” said the Hall of Fame quarterback, who started his career with the USFL’s Los Angeles Express. “I played in the Colosseum for 10,000 people. It is so quiet that I had to whisper in the herd. I actually had to move the huddle back. Defensive guys were like, “I think he said flanker drive.” “

When it comes to simple answers about rebooting the NFL in the COVID-19 era, the silence is deafening.

Unlike other leagues that have remained cold, the NFL has tried to play a little off-season in a normal way. It didn’t delay free service or move the concept, but instead created a completely virtual event where Commissioner Roger Goodell led it from his basement, and coaches, general managers and prospects were tripping live from their homes. It was an overwhelming success.

On Thursday, the NFL released its schedule for 2020, assuming a full season of games can be played even while stadiums in LA and Las Vegas are still under construction, which has been delayed by the pandemic.

“When the NFL announces its schedule, it does well by starting with the hypothesis that you can start as if the season has not been delayed,” said Frank Supovitz, former NFL senior vice president of events. “But my experience with the National Football League was that they studied all the events. They leave nothing to chance. ‘

A lot of questions are unanswered.

“They don’t open the season in any way with 60,000 people in a building,” said Joe Banner, former president of Philadelphia Eagles and CEO of Cleveland Browns. “In my mind, that’s a zero possibility.”

A realistic best-case scenario means that games are played in empty locations or for a greatly reduced crowds, enforcing guidelines for social distance.

The Miami Dolphins have presented a capacity of 15,000 spectators at the Hard Rock Stadium, which normally seats 80,120 and hosted this year’s Super Bowl. The ambitious plan is said to include sidewalk spots at entrance gates to keep fans at least six feet apart, and people will order food in their seats and then pick it up instead of forming lines at concession stands.

The potential loss of income is huge, even though the 32 teams each received $ 255 million in TV money last year.

Kansas City Chiefs fans at Arrowhead Stadium.

Are fans even allowed to attend NFL games this season?

(Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

“The economic impact is very significant,” said Banner. “It is gate [ticket sales revenue], which, depending on which city you are in, is from something important to something big. Those are all your club chairs and your suites and everything else. It is not just your general confession. It is parking income, concession income. Every element. Put all those things together and add it to the gate, and it’s very bulky. “

Like a boulder that has fallen into a pond, the resulting ripples would stretch far and wide.

Players have a nearly 50% stake in those local revenue streams, so they would be hit with team owners. Teams would almost certainly be much more careful with their money, especially since their expenses would not drop and could even increase during this tough trajectory.

“Are we going to see a year in which a very small number of players have been signed or expanded?” Banner said. “Because the pressure on cash flows in many of the markets will be really consistent.”

He gave an example.

“The Browns are talking about re-signing Myles Garrett,” Banner said, referring to the defensive ending taken first place in 2017. “In a year in which you have lowered income with equal or greater costs, that is a big step to explain a signing bonus, even if you postpone much of it.”

“I’m sure the broadcast depends on it. That’s just a constant sound that’s among our voices and that if you take it out of the equation, I think it flattens the broadcast. “

Joe Buck, Fox play-by-play announcer

Teams should also consider the hugely lucrative sponsorship and naming deals, which are full of demands and expectations from companies that sometimes pay tens of millions of dollars for them.

Said Banner: “If you’re Pepsi and you bought a sponsorship, and you paid $ 2 million for it, and it includes weekly TV shows and game signage that you assume 70,000 or 80,000 people see, and now there are only 20,000, do the teams have to go back and give them a refund or a credit or deferred payments?

“Each of those deals has a very clear list of all the benefits you get. And by the way, it includes a suite, club seats, stadium boards. Those things may not exist. ‘

The competition is already bracing for the economic impact. Goodell voluntarily forfeited his salary until competition activities resume. Leave and pay cuts are underway at NFL Network and NFL Films. All team facilities are closed, although the league released protocols on Wednesday prior to the safe and phased reopening of those venues.

Meanwhile, the networks are trying to find the best way to showcase games played in empty stadiums, including balancing the merits of amplifying broadcasts with artifical audience sound. Joe Buck by play announcer Joe Buck said noise is an essential element.

“I think these players eat a bit of that no matter how corny it sounds,” said Buck. “I’m sure the broadcast depends on it. That’s just a constant sound among our voices that, if you take it out of the equation, I think it flattens the broadcast.

“I have the audience as loud as possible in my headset because I don’t want to talk too much. When people experience noise from the crowd at home, they are taken to the stadium. If you take that out completely and it’s just an announcer who you could look at C-SPAN and it would be the same. “

Green Bay Packers walks back Aaron Jones celebrates with his teammates after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in October.

Green Bay Packers walks back Aaron Jones celebrates with his teammates and with an NFL Network camera operator in his face, after scoring a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys in October. How close can cameras get to players under COVID-19 rules?

(Michael Ainsworth / Associated Press)

Not everyone would argue in favor of simulated public sound.

“Could you do that? Yes. Is that right? I don’t know,” said Supovitz, now president of Fast Traffic Events and Entertainment in New York. “Every camera shot shows an empty stadium, so what has the sense? I think it doesn’t make it authentic, and the only thing about American football is its authenticity. ‘

For example, NBC is investigating various technologies that could take advantage of audience noise – via the broadcast, though not necessarily the actual stadium – generated remotely by fans. It has been done before, an example is for a Tunisian football team who had to play in empty stadiums in 2013, when no public meetings were held due to fear of violence.

Fans of the team used an app on their phones and other devices to simulate clapping, cheering and anger at the touch of a button. Those collective sounds were pumped through speakers on the field for the players to hear.

“It would be authentic because it would be viewer-generated,” said Fred Gaudelli, executive producer of NBC’s “Sunday Night Football.” “We are in the early stages of figuring out how to do that. … I like fan engagement and I like authenticity. There are tons of issues to fix and fix for that to happen, but that’s what we’re looking at right now. “

To prepare for games without crowds, Gaudelli and his team have been studying broadcasts of the NFL preseason and the Alliance of American Football Matches’ to try to get a sense of, hey, what will change in terms of our coverage ? “

In some cases, networks have used narrower camera images and lower angles to avoid displaying empty stands.

From the players’ perspective, the lack of audience noise may be strange, but not entirely unknown.

“I have a feeling players would adapt to that,” Rams told Andrew Whitworth. “From an energetic point of view and for people who work around it, it can be weird. But for us, scrimmages and practices we love all the time. We practice for 2½ hours. So when we leave camp, once it is closed to the public it is similar to what we do. “

In some ways, the playing field would be level, he said.

“If you look at New Orleans and Seattle, that home advantage has been very important to them,” said Whitworth. “Difficult places to go in. Eliminate some of that and that’s a huge thing.”

But for Whitfield – and the NFL as a whole – the biggest question isn’t about empty stadiums or a drenched sound or lost earnings. How can you reliably organize games with the very real possibility that an infected player can beat the whole league?

“The truth is that if we still live in a world where you need 14-day quarantines, we as players are still human beings,” he said. “A man gets it and you’re done for two weeks. Then every man on the team, every team you’ve played, every person you’ve interacted with …

“A player in the conversation understands, that whole conversation is now gone. So what do you do in the NFL if you only have 53 guys on a roster and you’ve just lost your entire starting attack? I don’t understand how you can work like that. “

It’s like pulling a loose thread on a sweater. It is very easy to imagine the whole operation.

“What if it’s a Sunday night or Monday night game when there is no other game and a team is infected?” Banner said. “Is there just no football that night? Do you just have a window open? There are countless questions that the NFL teams of people look at. These people put together all possible scenarios and then devise a plan.

“Once the NBA canceled their season, I bet the NFL started holding all these meetings on all the possible hypotheses that could come. We’ve never seen this kind of uncertainty.

“It is very scary. Nobody wants to get sick. Everyone tries to do the right thing. ‘

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