The NFL has successfully completed one week of games with no outbreaks of COVID-19. However, this was not business-as-usual for NFL teams and players. All players, coaches and staffers are being tested every other day for the virus. If the positivity rate goes past 5% league wide, testing will occur daily. Any players that test positive must test negative two times in a row in order to return to team activities.
The NFL has also amended its Injured Reserve policy. Typically, the injured reserve is used for players with major injuries that will keep them out for 8 weeks. Teams are usually only able to activate 2 players off the Injured Reserve each season. However, the new rules allow teams to have much more flexibility due to the seemingly ever-changing virus. The Injured Reserve only keeps players out for 3 weeks this season. Teams are also not limited in the amount of players they can activate from the reserve. Players that test positive for COVID-19 will be put on the Commissioner’s exempt list and carry a roster exemption for at least a week after their activation, meaning that they will not count against a team’s 53 man limit. Additionally, teams can carry 16 players on their practice squad, as opposed to the usual 10, which allows teams to have more players available to them in the event of an outbreak on their team. The league and the Players’ Association went to great lengths to agree on these terms to ensure the safety of the players and to ensure that teams could still operate.
After becoming acclimated to the new protocols, teams moved through camp reaching Week 1 without any outbreaks among teams. Once gametime rolled around, there was yet another change players had to become accustomed to: empty stadiums. Chase Young, rookie defensive end for the Washington Football Team, said in an interview with ESPN’s Adam Schefter that having no fans in the stands was “the most memorable part of his NFL debut.”
However, the Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs and Denver Broncos did have some fans in attendance, with the Jaguars allowing 25% capacity, the Chiefs 22%, and the Broncos 7.5%.
In order to replace/supplement the crowd noise, teams were allowed to play pre-recorded crowd noise up to 70 decibels, while the average volume is 100 decibels in an NFL stadium. The crowd noise seemed out of place at times when listening on TV. During the Giants-Steelers game on Monday Night Football in New Jersey, the noise pumped in often didn’t match the game situation. For example, the Steelers were facing a 3rd and 9 after the Giants had taken the lead in the 2nd quarter. The fan noise grew louder, but it was just generic cheering as if the Giants had scored a touchdown or made a good play, not noise that would disrupt or disorient the Steelers.
However, it does not appear that filtered crowd noise will be needed much longer. Teams are losing astronomical amounts of money with each game that they do not allow fans into. Losses of revenue from ticket sales, concessions, sponsors, and merchandise in empty stadiums amount to $77 million per week for the Dallas Cowboys and over $25 million for at least 4 other teams. Teams cannot sustain their salary caps and overall expenses if they continue to lose this amount of money weekly. That is likely why the Tennessee Titans, Indianapolis Colts, and Houston Texans are scaling up the amount of fans they will allow into the stadium for this week and other teams will continue to do so throughout the season.
Fans are an integral part of sports, not only for the money they spend on them, but for the energy they bring to the stadium. A crowd’s cheers can fuel a team down the field. Their noise can disrupt opponents. Without this important aspect of the game, players have to create their own energy on the sidelines, which is difficult to do. As Chase Young said: “It’s more like ‘do you really love the game?’ And I feel like it’s a test to see who really loves the game and who just comes to work.”