The limited stadium attendance that defined the 2020 NFL season will end up costing the league $2.7 billion, according to a commonly cited study from Team Marketing Report. But lost revenue was hardly pro football’s only issue. By late November, the league was dealing with a COVID-related quarterback crisis in Denver, the 49ers had nowhere to play or practice in locked-down San Francisco, and the Ravens were being ravaged by an outbreak that saw players and personnel testing positive every day for more than a week.
But somehow, someway, the NFL started on time, finished on time, and played every game in between. Most importantly, the big-money Super Bowl will take place on its regular day during its rightful time of year. It was a long road and the going was often ugly. Yet the 2020 NFL season endured—at least in part—because the ball bounced in the NFL’s favor throughout the COVID crisis, at least compared to the NHL, NBA, and MLB.
The Season Ended Before the Madness Began
On Feb. 2, 2020, Patrick Mahomes led the Kansas City Chiefs to a historic Super Bowl victory over the San Francisco 49ers, earning himself the title of Super Bowl MVP along the way. In its original stroke of luck, the NFL dismantled its infrastructure and went into its regularly scheduled off-season hibernation just as the virus was starting to spread beyond control. The other three leagues and the world were about to be drop-kicked by a pandemic, mass unemployment, a cratering stock market, contagious hysteria, economic shutdowns, panic-buying, store shortages, fear, anxiety, and civil unrest—but football had already packed up and gone home.
No Other League Went Uninterrupted
The NHL lost a dozen or so of its regular 82 games—crucial contests in the all-important spring runup to the playoff race. Like the NHL, the NBA season started in October 2019 and was forced to pause just as it was drawing to a close in March 2020. Both leagues responded by reopening months later in bubble environments with newly improvised seeding games to determine playoff eligibility and rank.
The MLB’s season—162 games originally scheduled to start on March 26—was absolutely mangled, delayed until mid-summer, and reduced to just 60 games.
The Others Served as the NFL’s Guinea Pigs
The prior season ending early was the NFL’s first stroke of unintentional good timing—but it also had the luxury of starting its current season last. The NFL had the benefit of watching the others improvise and ad-lib through a minefield of challenges with no precedent, challenges of planning, logistics, broadcasting, crowd control, merchandising, stadium revenue, labor/athlete relations, team travel, public relations, and the list goes on. The other leagues served as canaries in the coal mine for the NFL, which watched what they did, learned from their mistakes, and parroted their successes.
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The NFL Had Time to Strategize
During this crucial time of offseason observation—which no other league enjoyed—the NFL formulated a strategy. While biding its time and watching the others scramble to salvage their seasons, the NFL realized the NHL/NBA bubble model was simply not possible for an organization of its size and staffing requirements.
According to the Intelligencer, NFL brass was inspired by baseball’s willingness to power through its shortened season despite a disastrous early rollout and intense pressure to cancel play. The lesson was that the MLB made it through to the playoffs—and the real TV money—right on the sport’s regular schedule. The NHL and the NBA were forced to play their championships out of season.
With Super Bowl Sunday being the most important date on the annual sports calendar, the NFL adopted the strategy of both the MLB and college sports in the South. The logic became that the show—and the season—must go on no matter how tough the going would get to keep the all-important February Super Bowl schedule intact. It worked.
In the End, They Played 2 Full Seasons Straight
Unlike the 2019 football season that culminated in the 2020 Super Bowl, the NFL season that’s heading toward the championship now was anything but normal. Scores of players and officials on several teams were diagnosed with the virus, the league was forced to play a game on every day of the week, grownups had to say the phrase “Washington Football Team,” and the New York Jets, the Jacksonville Jaguars, and the NFC East as a collective forgot how to play football.
It was, however, a full season. 16 games. One bye week per team. A standard postseason playoff structure. A Super Bowl on the first Sunday in February two years straight. The coronavirus, it seems, met its match on the gridiron.
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