In the end, it always comes down to the money. The same will be true this fall.
What the NFL is planning in the face of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and the problems it has caused for professional sports, will ultimately have less to do with testing protocols, facemasks, and quarantined training sites than you think.
In the end, the decision to play or not play will, as always, be about the money.
Recently Forbes.com had an interesting piece by a fellow named Mike Ozanian that estimated a fanless NFL season could cost the league’s owners as much as $5.5 BILLION dollars. League-wide that would amount to about 38 per cent of total gross revenues. That’s a bigger hit than Dick Butkus or Lawrence Taylor ever delivered to the game.
But the news would be even worse in the case of teams like the New England Patriots and Dallas Cowboys. If Forbes’ estimates are true, they could lose more than half of their gross revenues from lost ticket sales, concessions, parking ($75 a car adds up) and merchandise revenue.
For the less popular franchises in smaller markets like the Cincinnati Bengals, Buffalo Bills, Tennessee Titans and Indianapolis Colts, the losses would be less significant, estimated at less than a third of their total income. Still, what owner wants to take that fall just to see a pigskin kicked around once a week?
That would be none of them.
While the players might remain unscathed because their contracts for 2020 are already in place, the salary cap would take a nuclear hit in 2021 if it was based on a gross revenue downturn of nearly 40 per cent -- a collapse in player earning power that would put their union in jeopardy as well as their careers.
So then what?
Word is the league and the union are already in discussions about possibly finding a way to artificially inflate the 2021 cap number if there is a massive fanless fall that cuts revenues from stadium income dramatically. What they are discussing is basically a plan to run the NFL for a year or two same the way the federal government has operated under every Republican administration since Herbert Hoover, which is to say with massive deficit spending.
They would run up deficits that artificially inflate the 2021 cap by borrowing from future caps while not knowing for sure what the revenues will be at that time. If it’s good for the U.S. Treasury, why wouldn’t it be good for the Dallas Cowboys?
This would require some nifty negotiating between the two sides, and that has seldom been something done without contentiousness, threats and, ultimately, a deal that puts the long-term squeeze on the players and not the owners.
Of course, many players might conclude they won’t be around to pay the price of that borrowing because careers are short. They might well agree that borrowing from some future college players’ potential income to pay them their present salary is fine by them and why not?
The point is that for all the fretting about how the NFL will handle the obvious health and safety issues inherent in trying to play a game that demands the opposite of social distancing (unless you are a wide receiver, of course) the truth of the matter is those factors won’t be what really decides the fate of the 2020 season or the 2021 salary cap.
In the end, it will be all about the Benjamins, as it always is in professional sports these days.
Every professional league is facing somewhat the same issues, but the massive revenue losses projected if the NFL plays a year with emptiness all around them in the stands and the parking lots makes it an even more troubling problem. So what is a fretting fan to do?
Well, if you want to get a handle on whether or not the NFL will play in 2020 don’t follow Dr. Anthony Fauci’s declarations. Follow the money.