By Richard O’Brien (@richard_obs)
As sports leagues across the globe cross the first hurdle with varying degrees of success, namely the issue of restarting given the current state of the Covid 19 pandemic, attentions have turned to the next hurdle. Fan attendance.
As an example, New Zealand has been able to allow fans back in full attendance for some time now. But, the nature of the issue is far greater in the UK and US. As the UK begins strategies from fans in limited attendance to return, as seen with county cricket and on a larger scale in the preseason friendly at the Amex between Brighton and Chelsea which permitted 2,500 fans to attend, it is now the NFL’s turn to consider the next steps before attempting this hurdle.
The Importance of Ticket Sale Revenue
An important piece of context to add is just how important this so-called hurdle actually is. The common misconception is that the ‘sales at the doors’ is no longer important compared to the revenue gained from sponsorships and advertising. Even though that is somewhat accurate in terms of amount, ticket sales is a huge source of consistent revenue regardless.
Despite attendance in 2019 dropping to the lowest number in 15 years, the league still averaged just over 66,000 people per regular season game. When looking at this over the course of a week, over half a million people attended an NFL match each game week. With the average cost of an NFL ticket being $102 according to Statista, the NFL would stand to lose in the range of $50 to $55 million each and every week if no fans attend. For the teams individually on average they would have to operate with $6,732,000 less for every home game than the year before.
Clearly, the NFL and commissioner Roger Goodell will be keen to get fans back as soon as possible. Despite teams becoming less dependent on ticket sales alone to bring in revenue, a loss of nearly $7 million in tickets added to loss of concessions and merchandise revenue is a tough pill to swallow for every team.
No fans in attendance all season
Simply put, the Chicago Bears, Las Vegas Raiders and Washington have committed to the policy that they will not be permitting fans at any point in this upcoming season. For the Bears and the Raiders, being located in Illinois and Nevada respectively, the coronavirus spread is classed in the ‘orange band’. What this means exactly is that the states are classified as having ‘escalating community spread’ with between 10-25 new cases each day per 100,000 people. Due to the current circumstances with the pandemic in these states, both teams have opted for the safety of staff and fans to go the season without fans for home matches.
Although the condition in the District of Columbia is not quite as severe, currently residing in the ‘yellow band’ meaning ‘potential community spread’, with up to 10 new cases each day per every 100,000, Washington too have rejected the prospect of any fans coming in person in the upcoming season.
No fans until further notice
The second most popular policy adopted by NFL teams is no fans until further notice. With all of the New York and Los Angeles based franchises as well as Philadelphia, Carolina and Baltimore have agreed on this approach. Of these teams, Baltimore and Carolina are the outliers. Having made two public statements committing to 14,000 fans attending and then halfing this figure, the Ravens are now once again changing policy by stating that no fans will come “for the initial part of the season”. For Carolina, having been very quiet on this issue, they have announced no fans will see their opening home game in person but will continue to monitor the situation and review whether fans can return after each home game.
In Ohio, the issue of fans attending is a unique issue. Both the Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns have been reluctant to forgo fans attending but have been left with no other option. Although both teams had aimed to get fans back for their first home game of the season, local government has blocked this suggestion given that Ohio is being categorised in the previously mentioned and in this case ironically named ‘orange band’. With the Bengals, they had previously said that fans would be allowed to come to the Paul Brown stadium at a limited capacity, but now the message has changed. The organisation has stated that they respect the state’s decision and are committed to working with the State of Ohio and the NFL to allow fans to return as soon as it is safe to do so. Likewise, the Cleveland Browns have the same issue. Although the Browns have not issued a public statement and have been the most ambiguous of all NFL teams in terms of attendance policy throughout the pandemic, they aim to get 20,000 fans in attendance and have used a compulsory mask policy at all times whilst in attendance in order to sway decision makers.
Whether these teams change their policy to allow fans to return will be judging on the success or failure of other teams and as the need for ticket sales increases. It is yet to be seen if such change in policy will have come, but the implication is that unless they are given evidence to suggest otherwise and a change in the present circumstances, most of the franchises will end up not having any fans by the end of the 2020 season.
No fans for the first two homes games
The reigning NFC champion 49ers, Pittsburgh Steelers, Arizona Cardinals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Denver Broncos have announced that they will not have any fans in attendance for the first two home games. For the Californian based franchise this means that fans will miss the divisional opener against the Cardinals and NFC rival Eagles. ‘The Faithful’s’ first possible opportunity to see a niners game in person will come in Week 5 on 11th October when the Miami Dolphins visit. For Denver, coincidentally, fans may be able to see the aforementioned Miami Dolphins in the following week. For fans of the Broncos, this means that they will have to watch the opener against the Tennessee Titans and Week 3 games versus the Tom Brady-led Tampa from home. Speaking of which, the Bucs are set to play divisional rival Panthers and Chargers behind closed doors and will be keen to bring fans back for their 6th game versus Green Bay.
For Arizona, although we aren’t still fully aware of their hopes and plans for the rest of the season, local guidelines prevented them from ever entertaining the prospect of fans in person attending. Given that the State of Arizona has not had any major events or a gathering of 50 people since the epidemic began, the idea of tens of thousands of football fans at a game is almost laughable.
Similarly to the Ohio organisations, the Steeelers had initially hoped for fans to attend in a limited capacity, although no exact figure had been announced. However, they will have to host the Broncos and Houston Texans without fans in weeks 2 and 3 respectively. Saying this, they may have fans in attendance for the week 5 game versus the Philadelphia Eagles in Week 5 at the earliest. Although there is more hope from these organisations that fans may be able to attend at some point this season, like before, this is largely dependent on the success or failure of other organisations in their attempts to bring fans to attend.
No fans through September at least
The most popular approach among NFL teams is to ban fan attendance through all of September. 10 teams have committed having no fans in September including Atlanta, Green Bay, Houston, Minnesota, New Orleans, New England and Tennessee. Whilst these seven teams are committed to not permitting fans through the first 3 weeks, and judging whether or not to allow fans back in Week 4 or later, three teams have committed to a specific date.
Both Buffalo and Detroit have committed to at least after Week 4 and specifically 4th October. For Detroit, this will likely mean a decision and preparations if needed will be made in their bye week in Week 5 with a home game on 1st November versus the travelling Colts as the target date. In compassion, ‘Bills Mafia’ will be looking forward to the Week 6 matchup against the reigning Superbowl Champs for more reason than one.
Finally, Seattle. Similarly to the Lions, Seattle have given themselves a bye week in Week 6 to make a decision. The Seahawks have made the decision that the ‘12’ won’t be in attendance for at least the first 3 home games. With the self imposed ban lifting on 13th October after a home game versus Minnesota, the first opportunity for fans to return will be the hotly contested fixture against divisional rival 49ers in Week 8.
Reduced but unspecific number of fans
For the Dallas Cowboys, the only team taking this approach, the loss of revenue through ticket sales will be particularly painful. Including hospitality tickets, the average Cowboys fan has to pay $110 to visit AT&T stadium on a matchday. This figure is the 11th highest in the NFL, but it’s the average attendance which is the key driver of ticket revenues for the Cowboys. With an average attendance of 90,875 at home, Dallas by far and away has the highest attendance at 727,000 annually. In terms of revenue, Dallas makes just under $10 million per home game and $80 million annually on ticket sales alone.
Saying this, it is understandable from an economic perspective why the Cowboys aim to go big; or at least as big as the State of Texas will allow. In typical Jerry Jones fashion, he has gone on the record saying that 50% capacity is unlikely but something to aim for. Whilst we are unlikely to know just how many fans will be permitted till game day, it certainly appears that the AT&T Stadium will bring in as many fans allowed by local government.
Reduced but specific number of fans
Whilst many teams had hoped to undertake the return of fans in attendance, few so far have been allowed to do so, with many having to temper their expectations. For the Indianapolis Colts, they had announced in July they would welcome fans back at 25% capacity for their first home game in Week 2. Since then, this figure has been reduced to 15%.
Having recently held their ring ceremony at Arrowhead field earlier this week, the Chiefs will have a capacity of 22% (roughly 16,000 fans) attending the opening of the NFL season against the Houston Texans on Thursday night. Likewise, the Miami Dolphins will welcome around 16,000 fans too into Hard Rock Stadium much to the anger of Sean McDermott. Finally, the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags have held steadfast since 10th July by sticking by their 25% capacity estimation. Although the TIAA Bank Field has a maximum capacity of nearly 85,000, standard capacity is significantly reduced from this figure to around 65,000. At 25% capacity, the Jags will have 13,000 fans in jorts and Gardner Minshew esc mustaches attending.
For all of these selective few teams that will allow fans to attend, they have all also committed to changing their strategy in accordance to local guidelines for fan safety, so this figure is likely to change at some point in the season, whether that be increasing or decreasing is yet unknown. Regardless, the implications will be sweeping with the rest of the league watching with bated breath as to whether these teams can safely welcome fans and if so, is their formula for possible success able to be replicated.
The issue of fans watching their teams during this strange and widespread world crisis like so many is not as easy as it seems. As alluded to earlier, Sean McDermott has been publicly critical of the differences. The Bills head coach has argued that the variances in approaches, as we have just seen is great and confusing at times, fosters an unfair competitive advantage. As well as the concerns over competitive integrity, economic issues will become more exaggerated as the season continues. Regardless of drafts, trades, player disputes or overall team performances, this season is shaping up to be an intriguing one where matters off the field are just as if not more important than what takes place on it.