Two hundred and sixty-eight games, 725 positives and 957,400 tests later, the NFL is finally at the finish line.
The Super Bowl this Sunday between Patrick Mahomes’ Kansas City Chiefs and Tom Brady’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers marks the end of a roller-coaster season for the country’s most popular sport. But in reaching this point, the NFL defied the odds and the experts. Not only can football be played during a pandemic, it turns out, but the league didn’t miss a single regular-season game.
Getting to Super Bowl Sunday wasn’t easy. There were missteps and adjustments as teams learned how to stay on the field while a highly contagious virus raged nationwide. Schedules and protocols had to be adjusted on the fly, sometimes dramatically. The empty stands looked bad enough on TV screens, but the impact on owners’ bottom lines was even worse. No fans meant no ticket sales, no parking fees and no concession business.
But the NFL is on the cusp of completing the season.
“If your benchmark is keeping players safe and preventing as many outbreaks within a team as possible, given how many players are coming in close contact with one another, they were successful at preventing widespread transmission within teams and between teams given the resources they had available,” said Dr. Jill Weatherhead, an assistant professor of infectious disease and tropical medicine at Baylor College of Medicine.
Crafting a plan
Since Aug. 1, when NFL teams were gearing up to report for training camp, the league has had only 262 players and 463 personnel — coaches, executives, staff members — test positive for COVID-19. That was with 957,400 tests administered to more than 11,000 players and staff members, as of Jan. 30.
To limit the spread, the league had to design a comprehensive set of health and safety protocols.
Daily testing was required. So too were contact tracing devices and masks. Perhaps just as important were crackdowns on those who failed to abide by the protocols. The Tennessee Titans and the Las Vegas Raiders were each fined hundreds of thousands of dollars. Individual players including former Washington quarterback Dwayne Haskins were also punished.
There is no one reason why the season worked. Speaking at a press conference Thursday, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said it took an “extraordinary collective effort.”
Dr. Weatherhead noted the financial resources the NFL devoted to testing, a total likely in the millions of dollars.
Coaches and players often discussed the sacrifices it took to mitigate potential exposure to COVID-19. A number of them went months without seeing their families.
Justin Beck, a public health expert who is CEO of the startup Contakt World, said the league’s contact tracing efforts were particularly important. After any positive test, the NFL required the person to be isolated. Contract tracing, aided by a recording device worn on the wrist, helped the league determine who had come into close contact with the player or staffer and whether those contacts needed to isolate.
The most extreme example of the policy was the quarantining of all Denver Broncos quarterbacks at the same time, leaving the team with little alternative than to play a practice squad receiver at quarterback for a November game against the New Orleans Saints.
“If they did not … perform contact tracing the way — and commit to it — the way that they did, it’s impossible (to pull off a season),” Mr. Beck said.
Lessons were learned the hard way. Early on in the season, the NFL struggled with outbreaks, leading to postponed games.
But the problems led to valuable information. The league found that the virus was transmitted in less than 15 minutes of cumulative interaction, according to a paper published by the NFL, the players union and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That time frame was shorter than the CDC’s initial estimate of what it took for the virus to spread.
Dr. Allen Sills, the league’s chief medical officer, told reporters that the NFL had not seen any evidence of in-game and in-practice transmission. He said the league made adjustments as the year progressed and pointed to the increased number of remote meetings.
“We were able to show that you can play a team sport while minimizing risk to the participants,” Dr. Sills said last month. “It does require everyone to do their part every day.”
A different look
The circumstances made for a distinctly different season.
Details and traditions, such as players swapping jerseys after games, were changed or eliminated, and ideas that once seemed unthinkable — NFL games played in empty stadiums — became standard.
On Sunday, the NFL plans to have 25,000 fans at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, the biggest crowd this season. Each person will be given a KN95 mask to wear.
Dr. Weatherhead said, “it doesn’t send a great message” and is risky to have that many people at a football game in the middle of a pandemic that has killed more than 450,000 Americans. The NFL defended the move by saying the decision was made in consultation with public health officials. Tampa Bay’s stadium holds 65,000, so Sunday’s attendance is limited.
Crowd size won’t be the only obvious difference. Viewers tuning in to the big game might notice the absence of companies such as Budweiser, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, all of which have decided not to advertise this year.
Super Bowl commercials have become almost as iconic as the game itself, but advertising lawyer Jim Dudukovich said the tone of this year’s spots may be more serious than in past years because of the pandemic.
“Since the pandemic started, we’ve noticed almost immediately a shift in what advertisers were saying,” said Mr. Dudukovich, an attorney for Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner who has worked with Coca-Cola. “Advertisers don’t want to be tone-deaf. You don’t want to pretend the world is the same as it always was.”
The NFL, of course, will not be the first sports league to finish its season during the pandemic. MLB, the NBA and the NHL all navigated play and crowned champions after overcoming hiccups along the way.
But the NFL, as those leagues have, will likely find that pandemic-related issues will persist. The NBA and NHL have dealt with postponements of multiple games after rarely battling COVID-19 over the summer, though that’s largely because the leagues aren’t in isolated environments, or bubbles, any longer.
A bubble wasn’t realistic for the NFL, given the number of people involved, Dr. Weatherhead said. But like its contemporaries, the league faces safety challenges of bringing fans back to events. The league was projected to lose $2.7 billion from reduced attendance in 2020, according to a November study from Team Marketing Report.
That lost revenue will be felt in the salary cap. The amount teams have to spend on players could fall to $175 million from $198 million per club, meaning many teams will be scrambling to adjust.
Television ratings took a 7% hit in 2020. The decrease is in line with the overall trend for sports and other types of broadcast programming.
Fewer people were tuning in to watch traditional programming, though the NFL dominated the television landscape. The league accounted for 72 of the 100 most-watched programs in 2020.
“We went from No. 1 to No. 1,” NBC play-by-play man Al Michaels quipped on a conference call last month. “It’s still the No. 1 show on television.”
For the league, a new broadcasting rights deal is on the horizon.
The NFL’s current TV deal runs through the 2022 season, but the New York Post reported that the NFL could reach an agreement worth as much as $100 billion over the next decade.
Other issues have to be addressed. Mr. Goodell told reporters that the investigation into Washington’s workplace misconduct is expected to be concluded soon. That investigation, led by attorney Beth Wilkinson, began in July and could result in significant punishment for the franchise, depending on the findings.
The league must determine how many of its health and safety protocols will carry over to 2021, as well. Mr. Goodell said it was too early to discuss whether players will need to be vaccinated for the coronavirus in order to play. He added that the offseason could resemble last year, when teams resorted to remote meetings and avoided on-field workouts until training camp.
“I don’t know when normal will occur again or if normal will occur again,” he said. “I know we have learned to work in a very difficult environment, and we will do it again.”
First, the league’s unprecedented COVID-19 season wraps up Sunday with a familiar star again taking center stage: Brady, the six-time champion, chasing another ring in his 10th Super Bowl.
“When all of this started, I have to be honest, I did not think it was even possible for the NFL to have a season,” Mr. Beck said. “I was actually counting the weeks, starting from Week 1, that there was just no way. … The NFL has done a fantastic job.”