Before Week 1 began, things looked promising for a full NFL season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, things have taken an alarming turn within the past two weeks and the fate of the regular season and NFL Playoffs could now be in jeopardy.
It all started with the Tennessee Titans’ COVID-19 outbreak before Week 4. A small bump developed into a massive problem, with 23 players and staff within the Titans organization contracting the virus since Sept. 24.
The major outbreak led to the first postponed game of the NFL season, but more would quickly follow. From New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton testing positive, leading to the NFL requiring the Patriots and Kansas City Chiefs to play two days after the new case, to the Chiefs’ practice-squad quarterback and their strength coach both contracting the virus.
After postponing the Patriots-Denver Broncos game, following another positive test, it’s evident this might be the start of bigger problems for the entire league. Given everything at stake this season, a bubble might be the only thing that can save the NFL.
Latest COVID-19 news shows why NFL needs a bubble this season
The NFL is experiencing the same thing MLB went through early in its regular season. During the MLB season, the Miami Marlins, St. Louis Cardinals and New York Mets each had significant COVID-19 outbreaks. Everything worked out as the year went on, but MLB created a bubble and hasn’t reported a positive test in weeks.
After suspending play during the middle of their season in March, the NBA returned to a bubble at Walt Disney World in Orlando and hasn’t documented a new case of the coronavirus in the months since. It’s the same story for the NHL, which returned to action with two regional bubbles and went through the Stanley Cup Playoffs and Stanley Cup final without a hitch.
The Titans returned to action in Week 5, while Cam Newton and the Patriots are expected to play in Week 6. But this is far from over. Following the Atlanta Falcons’ COVID-19 outbreak, it remains obvious that any team could be at risk of a major problem. Even worse for the NFL and its ability to adjust the schedule on the fly, each passing week means more byes disappear and it leads to even less flexibility for the league.
While the NFL won’t suspend its season due to a single COVID-19 outbreak or individual cases across the league, that’s not the big picture that should be the priority. While regular-season games still draw massive ratings, which puts money in the league’s pocket, the NFL Playoffs is where the real cash is earned.
It’s a point driven home by Philadelphia Eagles legend Brian Westbrook appearing with Dave Briggs on Sportsnaut. Creating a bubble, even multiple, isn’t realistic for a 32-team league with 53-man rosters and dozens of essential staff. However, creating two bubble sites for the 14-team NFL Playoffs is far more manageable.
The NFL reportedly started considering a bubble for the playoffs before the regular season and there is a growing belief it will happen. There will be complicating factors that make it difficult to pull off, but a bubble might be the only way for the NFL Playoffs to go on without any issues.
Expansion of NFL Playoffs and impact on league revenue
When the NFL approved a 14-team playoff this offseason, going into effect immediately, the move came with financial motives. The NFL sold the broadcasting rights for the two new wild-card games immediately to CBS and NBC.
Even during a season when ratings have dipped slightly, the league dominates every night it is on television and is easily beating its competition. FOX is already preparing a lucrative offer for its next television contract with the NFL and other networks (NBC, ESPN, CBS) are ready to write blank checks to broadcast games. The NFL Playoffs are everything for this league financially.
Football games typically draw massive viewership to begin with, but the numbers explode even further when the NFL Playoffs start, per SportsMediaWatch.
- Wild Card weekend: All four games drew 25-plus million viewers, with the Seattle Seahawks-Philadelphia Eagles and Tennessee Titans-New England Patriots game each having over 30 million tuned in.
- Divisional round: The NFL averaged over 30 million viewers for each of its four divisional playoff games. The biggest draw saw 37.24 million people watch the Seahawks face the Green Bay Packers.
- Conference championship games: 42.79 million people watched the NFC Championship between the Green Bay Packers and San Francisco 49ers, with an incredible 22.0 rating. Meanwhile, 41.1 million watched the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Titans in the AFC Championship Game.
- Super Bowl LIV: An epic Super Bowl, featuring a fourth-quarter comeback, drew 99.91 million viewers and held a 41.6 rating for FOX.
The NFL’s strict COVID-19 protocols haven’t been enough to prevent an outbreak, but that will likely change with the Titans facing severe discipline for their role in the virus spreading. Even with modifications, fines and draft-pick penalties, there will be more positive tests among players when the league operates outside of a bubble.
It’s a near certainty that more regular-season games will be postponed this season, with canceled matchups a possibility. The NFL can work around that with changes to the playoff format, but there will be no wiggle room when the playoffs begin. The league and the NFLPA have a few months to figure things out, but they need to start now.