The COVID-19 pandemic had a huge impact on sporting events, including the NFL football league. In 2020 there were no spring practices, and no preseason. With some adjustments and changes, the NFL made it to Week 17, within the proposed time frame.
According to the Insurance Journal, it took, ‘ playing games on all seven days of the week, a wide receiver starting at quarterback, numerous schedule changes and constant revisions to health and safety protocols.’
How the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the NFL
The NFL draft was originally set to go ahead in Las Vegas. Due to the pandemic, Sin City was postponed to 2022, and the NFL arranged a virtual draft.
During May 2020 the international games were switched to home stadiums. At this point, the NFL released a revised schedule for the season. The organization followed a ticket refund scheme to subside games that had been canceled (or games that would go ahead without fans).
The majority of team training centers were closed at the beginning of the pandemic. A select few were eventually allowed to re-open so long as these centers adhered to the proper health protocols. The preseason ‘Hall Of Fame’ game was also canceled. Eventually the July training camps opened, (adhering to a daily testing protocol).
In September the season began with the Chiefs vs Houston at Kansas City. The event welcomed a crowd of 17,000, with social distancing restrictions in place. Stadiums soon opened in Vegas and LA, without fans.
Later in the month, a group of coaches and players were fined between $250,000 and $100,000, for not wearing masks properly. These individuals included Vic Fangio and Sean Payton. In Sept 2020 we saw the first COVID outbreak of the NFL, meaning that the game between the Steelers & the Titans was postponed.
In December 2020, Northern California officials ordered the 49ers to look for a temporary home. The home games were consequently moved to Arizona, to adhere to new COVID guidelines. In Dec the NFL also fined the Ravens $250,000 for COVID-19 breaches.
Which changes might continue?
As COVID-19 restrictions are gradually lifted, some people are wondering how many of the new NFL protocols will remain. In an interview with USA TODAY Sports, Eric DeCosta said, ‘I’m not sure what we’ll do. I think we’ve all gotten used to different things — Zoom, off-site meetings … the way we travel, restrictions.
Some industry experts believe that certain changes may continue, post-pandemic. Virtual meetings for instance, which can save both time and money. Across the world, many industries have learned how digital transformation can improve efficiency.
To keep the season going, the NFL relied on contact tracing methods, in an attempt to mitigate transmission. Masks were made compulsory, and both coaches and players were required to take daily tests.
A change in fan attendance
As the 2020 season drew closer only a few teams announced ‘limited fan attendance’. The majority announced that they would not be permitted to let fans into the stadiums,’ (The Sports Rush 2020).
In 2021, States started to reduce the COVID restrictions, and NFL teams permitted attendance once more. According to Sportskeeda, ‘30 out of 32 NFL teams were approved to open their stadiums at full capacity for the 2021 season.’
Billions of pounds were lost in 2020
CBS News reported that ‘NFL teams lost almost $4 billion in revenue due to the coronavirus pandemic.’ Commenting on the lost revenue, Union Director DeMaurice Smith said, ‘ Both the league and the players association recognized that something was going on much bigger than their own interests. They gave the country a sense of normalcy that it desperately needed in the early fall and winter.’ As fans were welcomed back into the stadiums this year, the NFL began to recuperate some of the earlier losses.
It wasn’t just the NFL that lost money, billions of dollars were lost across major sporting events across the globe. According to Forbes, ‘baseball players were the hardest hit in terms of team sports while two-star boxers took massive individual blows: Canelo Alvarez and Anthony Joshua each missed out on a $30 million payday when their respective May and June bouts were canceled.’
Updated vaccine rules
In May 2021 the NFL announced changes to vaccination protocols, the rules asserted that vaccinated players would be permitted to return to a ‘pre-pandemic normal’, unvaccinated players were required to adhere to the restrictions from the 2020 season, (NFL News 2021). These restrictions involved daily testing, mask-wearing, physical distancing, and travel restrictions.
According to the amended guidelines, if a vaccinated player comes into contact with someone who has COVID-19, the player doesn’t have to quarantine. Unvaccinated players are subject to quarantine under the same circumstances. Many people believe that this is the biggest vaccination incentive, (removing the risk of missing games or practices).
In July 2021, it was announced that ‘games will be forfeited, not rescheduled if COVID hits a team, (Reuters, 2021). These rules differ from the previous year when games were rescheduled. When a game is forfeited due to COVID-19, Reuters reported that the team could be responsible for covering the associated financial losses.
According to Figures from the NFL, ‘87.9% of players league-wide had taken at least one vaccination shot, while 19 of the 32 teams had a vaccination rate of at least 90%,’ (USA Today, 2021)
The Seahawks stayed COVID free
In 2020 only one NFL team didn’t have any positive COVID tests- the Seattle Seahawks!
According to the current protocol, vaccinated players only need to be tested every two weeks. Carrol has asked his team to volunteer for more regular testing, (even if they are vaccinated). It’s not a requirement, yet Carrol was determined to avoid an outbreak within his team.
As the pandemic took hold of the world, the Seahawks devoted themselves to the government’s health and safety guidelines, setting an example to the rest of the NFL. The teams installed dividers, between lockers and in showers. Extra lockers were added, to prevent overcrowding. The NFL provided improved ventilation systems, and outside tents for dining.
Setting the standard
By Jan-Feb 2021, the NFL was able to continue the normal season, cancelations came to a halt and most teams were able to host home games at their stadiums.
According to ESP, ‘the NFL and NFL Players Association built an infection control system so robust that they submitted multiple scientific papers to recommend applications outside of football — including one that was published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).’
It was reported that the infection rate was much lower than the USA national average, (over a similar time frame). How did the NFA achieve this? Using Rigid health protocol and ‘959,860’ tests! (ESPN, 2021).
When the pandemic started, there was much controversy about sports events. Many people were concerned and wondered whether such events should continue. People worried that large-scale sports might be a threat to public health, even if the public were not permitted to attend.
The success of the NFL amidst the pandemic set the standard for sports event protocol overall. As we continue to navigate these strange times, the sports industry has learned a lot from the COVID-19 practices of the NFL.