Is COVID pushing NFL into a corner?
With COVID-19 continuing to cast its long shadow on United States, the deadly virus is also not stopping to chase the National Football League (NFL) in the sense that it has made mincemeat of its schedule and has left the league embittered.
CUP OF WOES OVERFLOWETH
Pro Bowl scrapped
The NFL has scrapped this season’s Pro Bowl (the all-star game of the league) due to the coronavirus pandemic. This decision has not taken everyone by surprise and was but expected given the number of positive tests around the league as of late.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s desire is to play a full regular season and postseason, and that, more than anything, is a priority.
Nevertheless, fans will still be able to vote their favorite players to the Pro Bowl beginning on November 17th. The full rosters are expected to be announced in December.
“The league will work closely with the National Football League Players’ Association (NFLPA) and other partners to create a variety of engaging activities to replace the Pro Bowl game this season,” the NFL said in a statement sent out on Wednesday.
NFLPA is a labor union representing the National Football League (NFL) players.
“This virtual recognition of the season’s finest players will provide fans the opportunity to celebrate the accomplishments of their favorite stars,” the statement added.
The NFL has announced that the 2021 Pro Bowl game will be replaced by a range of “engaging activities” as the league’s objective is to complete its full regular season campaign amid COVID-19 throwing down the gauntlet.
Allegiant Stadium, the new and luxuriant home of the Las Vegas Raiders, had been due to host the game in 2021 but will now do so in 2022. Instead of the game, a virtual recognition of the NFL’s best players will be held.
Fans will still be able to select rosters for the Pro Bowl, with these votes to count equally with votes from players and coaches to determine the 88 players. Specific details of the activities planned have not been disclosed by the NFL.
Allegiant Stadium was awarded hosting rights to the Pro Bowl back in June. The NFL’s all-star game has been staged at Camping World Stadium in Orlando at Florida (US) since 2017 and is usually held in the week before the Super Bowl, which next year will take place at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa at Florida (US).
Las Vegas is scheduled to host the 2022 NFL Draft after the 2020 Draft in the City was held in the virtual mode due to the coronavirus curse.
The NFL Draft or the Player Selection Meeting is an annual event which serves as the league’s most common source of player recruitment.
Though there is a lot of football to be played but the kind of situation which COVID-19 has created is something which NFL has never encountered before.
Super Bowl postponed?
The first few weeks of the 2020 NFL season went pretty well as regards the COVID-19 pandemic. Heading into Week 4 everything turned topsy-turvy following a massive outbreak of the fatal respiratory disease within the Tennessee Titans organization.
This led to the Titans’ Week 4 game against the Pittsburgh Steelers being postponed until later in October.
Goodell spoke at length about the COVID-19 outbreaks within the NFL and had an interesting observation to make on conference call as regards the possibility of moving the Super Bowl– “If there’s one consistent theme to our season, its flexibility and adapting”.
This could very well be the end result. Not only are the Titans battling an outbreak of the virus, but multiple star players with the New England Patriots have come down with COVID-19, including quarterback Cam Newton. The latest is that Newton has since joined the team back.
It was always going to be difficult playing a clean schedule amid COVID-19 which is still striking the United States with full gusto. And the same got magnified when the NFL opted to play its season outside of bubble-like atmospheres. The Super Bowl could now be impacted.
In case Super Bowl gets postponed…
The idea here would be for the NFL to create a Week 18 consisting of games that are postponed due to COVID-19. It’s not something idyllic, but as Goodell says, “flexibility and adapting”.
Slated to take place on February 7th, 2021, in Tampa Bay (Florida, US), Super Bowl LV would then likely be played the following Sunday. Given the months of potential planning, this wouldn’t be a logistical issue.
As for the NFL, moving the Super Bowl to later in February would also allow the league to potentially host fans for the year’s biggest sporting showpiece. Right now, the scenario is that nobody knows when a vaccine for coronavirus will finally be available to the masses.
NFL COVID count
The NFL released its latest round of coronavirus test results on Tuesday. There were eight new confirmed COVID-19 positive cases among players and seven new confirmed coronavirus cases among other personnel.
Postponement ideal solution
It would be in the best interest of the NFL to postpone the Super Bowl. If that is not done there will be an increased number of cases that will make it impossible for the 2020 season to resume.
Super Bowl in Superdome
The Mercedes-Benz Superdome, home of the NFL team New Orleans Saints, will now host the NFL’s Super Bowl in 2025, a year later than planned to avoid a clash with Mardi Gras celebrations (a carnival celebration held in New Orleans), while the league has detailed plans to rework the 2021 Pro Bowl amid the grim COVID-19 situation in the United States.
In April this year, questions were raised over whether the Superdome could lose hosting rights to Super Bowl LVII as it would coincide with New Orleans’ iconic Mardi Gras celebrations. The stadium was awarded rights to the 2024 edition of the event back in May 2018 but an agreement has now been arrived at for the City to stage the 2025 game instead.
The Super Bowl is the annual championship game of the NFL played in early February. It is the culmination of a regular season that begins in the late summer of the previous year. The game was created as part of the merger agreement between the NFL and its rival the American Football League.
The NFL’s original agreement with the Saints and The Greater New Orleans Sports Foundation was contingent upon the hosting availability for a specific date due to a Mardi Gras conflict. At the time of New Orleans’ bid, the league and the City agreed to work to award New Orleans the next available Super Bowl in the event of a shift to a 17-game season, which, in line with the NFL’s new collective bargaining agreement, will be in effect during the 2023 season.
The move to reallocate New Orleans hosting rights for the 2025 spectacle was approved on Wednesday by the NFL’s 32 clubs during a virtual league meeting. The new host of the 2024 Super Bowl will be announced at a later date.
Remarked Jay Cicero, President and Chief Executive, Sports Foundation, “This isn’t our first at bat when it comes to contingency planning. The Super Bowl Host Committee, led by the Sports Foundation and the New Orleans Saints, anticipated this possible scenario during the original bid, and we made sure to guarantee that New Orleans would not lose the event altogether if the scenario played out.”
The Saints are presently seeking a new naming-rights partner for the Superdome after it was confirmed in May that Mercedes-Benz would not be extending its deal when it expires next year. Last month, the Saints appointed Oak View Group (OVG) to sell naming rights to the stadium, which is undergoing extensive refurbishment work ahead of hosting the Super Bowl.
Playoff bubbles to the rescue?
It seems the NFL is not open to the idea of adopting any isolated bubble sites for the completion of the regular season held amid the coronavirus pandemic.
While fixtures such as the National Hockey League (NHL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), Major League Soccer (MLS) and National Women’s Soccer League all prevented virus outbreaks by embracing isolated hubs and tasted success, the NFL and NFL Players Association followed in the footsteps of Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association (MLBPA) and agreed that necessary personnel would remain living at their homes and travel for in-market games throughout the campaign.
By not adopting the isolated bubble sites concept, the going has not been smooth for the NFL throughout the opening five weeks of the NFL season. The Tennessee Titans suffered the league’s first COVID-19 outbreak, and handfuls of games have already been rescheduled because of coronavirus-related concerns.
Despite COVID haunting the league, the NFL Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dr. Allen Sills said during a conference call on Tuesday that the league isn’t yet adopting any new structure for the season – “I think we all have to recognize that there are no perfect [solutions] here. First of all, a bubble is not going to keep out all infections. You still have other individuals that come in and out: Service workers, security, and other personnel. And we’ve known from other experiences that those individuals can be infected. So, simply being in a bubble doesn’t keep us safe. We still have to do all these measures of mitigation, with PPE, with identification of symptoms, with testing, etc.”
Sills added, “Something that is not discussed when people talk about a bubble is the human and emotional and the behavioral health toll that that takes on people. Imagine any one of us being sequestered away from our families, all of our loved ones, for three or four or five months on end. That’s a really significant stretch point. And I think that we have to acknowledge that as just as much of a health and safety consideration as is COVID infections. And particularly when talking about a holiday period that we’ve all grown to love and celebrate.”
However, media reports stated that the NFL could relocate teams to bubbles in Los Angeles and/or Dallas for the playoffs. It’s believed that option remains on the table and is being discussed by the NFL and NFLPA.
Reliable sources stated that few NFL players are “terrified” of catching the virus or spreading it to loved ones and if they test positive for the infection, the league won’t help them out.
There is no doubt that the bubble strategy is a difficult one that requires a lot of planning. Given the unbelievable success of the NBA season in Orlando and the MLB smoothly transitioning to their own playoff bubble, it seems to be the best solution for the NFL too to ensure that they do not become the only major sports league not to complete their season due to the coronavirus scourge.
And while planning for 32 teams in a bubble will indeed be a herculean task, 18 of those teams will not be in the playoff picture and six of the 14 playoff teams would be gone after the first weekend, making the entire thing a lot more achievable.
Additional Week 18?
The NFL has had to implement multiple changes to its schedule through the first month of the season, and more changes are expected as more and more players and personnel are reporting positive for COVID-19. Eventually, that could result in a week being added to the regular season. A normal regular season, before the playoffs, has 17 weeks.
As per reliable sources, a Week 18 is expected to be added to the season if and when a team has two games that need to be postponed. That scenario is still possible for the Tennessee Titans, who treated Week 4 as their bye after having their game against the Pittsburgh Steelers postponed.
Week 18 games would only be played if they have a significant impact on the postseason. A game probably would not be played if it only determined whether a team was a fifth or seventh seed in the playoffs.
The NFL has been determined to play a full 16-game season. Many feel that looking at the grave coronavirus situation in the United States, the league should have reduced the season to 14 games and left more flexibility for postponements. Of course, that would impact revenue and player salaries. Those types of agreements are difficult to work out.
Some players are reportedly tearing their hair over the way the NFL is handling its schedule. If the COVID wallop on the league continues, that frustration could grow even more as the season moves along.
The NFL seems to be in a pickle as far as the coronavirus situation is concerned and COVID-19 is becoming a bitter pill for the league to swallow.
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