A Super Bowl Without Fans Could Happen

In a sports year to remember—or one to forget, as the case may be—almost half of the teams in the NFL are playing home games without fans in the stands. So far, the league has walked a tightrope that has allowed it to get more than halfway through the regular schedule while battling the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Still, the brand-new SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles sits empty on game-day, and the 49ers are playing their home games in Arizona because of California’s coronavirus measures.

Games have been delayed when teams had many players test positive for the virus. Games usually played on Thursday, Sunday, or Monday have been switched to Tuesday and Wednesday. And while it has been but seamless, the NFL has adopted the motto, “Super Bowl or Bust.” What remains to be seen if the game does go on, will there be fans in the stands?

Without fans, the league would lose its share of ticket revenue, onsite merchandise and concession sales, and big dollars from sponsors who participate in such events as the pre-Super Bowl fan fest. In a public safety versus private interest battle, a game without fans is possible but might show the league as weak and indecisive.

The Super Bowl show must go on

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The NFL’s good luck was that it moved the 2021 Super Bowl from LA to Tampa, given California’s tight restrictions. Tampa has had fans in the stands. In its most recent home game against the Vikings, Raymond James Stadium, host venue for Super Bowl 55, had a “socially distant” crowd of 16,031, including a mask-wearing Roger Goodell.

Goodell is determined to have the game go on and allow as many fans as possible to attend.

“Whether there is a vaccine, whether there is additional testing then that we think would help make our fans attending the game safer, we are … actively considering that,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said, per WTOP news. “But our intent … is to hold as many fans at the Super Bowl that can be done safely.”

The current plan is to have “as many fans as possible,” the commissioner said, refusing to set a particular number.

Creating a safe Super Bowl

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One way of facilitating a healthier atmosphere for fans is creating a “cashless” game. Visa, which had a long-term goal of making a digital payment system for pro football experience fans, accelerated its plan in time for the pandemic Super bowl.

“A cash-free Super Bowl was the main goal of our new contract,” Mary Ann Reilly, Visa’s senior vice president of its North America marketing division, said, per CNBC. “The plan was to get to a cash-free Super Bowl within five years, and we’re doing it in less than two years.”

Making it easier to buy a $20 beer is one thing, but Florida has been one of the top COVD-19 hot spots since the beginning of the pandemic. As of Dec. 11, the state has had more than 1.1 million cases with more than 19,000 deaths. The state has been lax in its restrictions, which works in the NFL’s favor, but at what cost?

For the NFL, it’s all about stopping the bleeding

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell still plans to hand out the Super Bowl trophy after the 2020 season, but there might not be fans there to see it because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Roger Goodell prepares to hand out the Vince Lombardi Trophy to the Super Bowl champion. | Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Like the NBA and Major League Baseball, professional sports teams face deep losses for the current season. Estimates are that league-wide, the revenue shortfall will be close to $3 billion, reports Sportsnaut. According to the Fan Cost Index (FCI), the most impacted teams are the Washington Football Team, Raiders, Eagles, Patriots, and Packers.

For many teams, there will be no way to get back this lost revenue. The issue is, and why having as many fans as possible in the stands at the Super Bowl is important to the NFL, looking ahead to the 2020-2021 season.

Fan Cost Index adds, “Will fans be restricted in 2021? Even if they are allowed to pack stadiums, how soon will enough fans be comfortable to do so? Even if we are cleared for football next August, will the typical FCI family have been hit too hard by furloughs and layoffs to invest in an outing to watch their favorite football team in person?”