Laird: Sorry everyone, we should not force football this fall

Ken Laird
July 15, 2020 - 5:30 am

Cover your ears if you don’t want to hear the truth.

It’s time for all football - high school, college, and yes, the NFL - to be moved to the spring of 2021. 

Call me a wet blanket if you’d like, but ask your gut and it’ll tell you I’m right. Waiting longer for football is the plan that makes the most sense, both for public health and commercial wealth.

The most convincing tea leaf pattern to form was yesterday’s breaking news that the first Covid-19 vaccine tested in the U.S. worked in initial trials and has now been passed to a 30,000 person-study for late July. If all goes well, we just might have a “cure” for this thing by the new year.

And if I’m Robert Kraft, I’m willing to bet on it. If this pony named Phase Four crosses the finish line early in 2021, Kraft makes a cool $250 million dollars and his fellow owners will reap similar rewards.

That $250 million is the approximate difference between the revenue the Patriots will get from fully-packing Gillette stadium for ten home games (based on 2018 per-team figures Forbes published in May) versus *maybe* getting permission from King Charlie Baker to fill the Big Lighthouse to 20% capacity, an approval the team informed ticket holders on Monday they are hoping for.

On top of that, the 20 percent capacity of mask-wearing fans you might get this fall will probably be less likely to buy concessions or merchandise, as will sponsors be less likely to advertise at what’ll look like a Schaefer Stadium crowd. 

We know the preseason slate is also in trouble, so that’s possibly two fewer gates under the fall Covid plan. That $315 million in stadium revenue the Pats took in during 2018? Sounds like $50 million or so in 2020 amidst the best-case autumn winds.

And we haven’t even begun to address the current lack of an agreement on return-to-play protocols between the NFL and NFLPA. Kraft’s team leaders, the McCourty brothers, described the current state of affairs this way in their guest column for The MMQB this week: “So many questions with virtually no answers, all three weeks removed from a potential start to training camp.” 

Cited by the McCourtys among the “no guidance” items right now: opt-out ability, salaries and escrow, outbreak procedures, stadium guidance, meeting protocol, testing frequency, and family planning.

So, in other words, everything.

It’s actually bizarre that the league we praised so profusely for barrelling ahead with a highly entertaining free agency and a flawless remote-draft during the early virus days appears so disorganized right now. The NFL is somehow making MLB look competent again with the crack of bats in the air.

But I have to believe this a tactical move by Roger Goodell, whose owners know deep down the decision they have to make: punt the season to the spring.

They won’t be alone. College football will be scraping their conference-only plans shortly, too, and canceling fall ball. 

Pete Thamel of Yahoo cited a Power Five athletic director as saying, “Right now, I don’t see a path in the current environment to how we play.” Another high-ranking college official told him, “Ultimately, no one is playing football in the fall. It’s just a matter of how it unfolds. As soon as one of the ‘autonomy five’ makes a decision, that’s going to end it.”

And why would big-time college commence games without fans and bands? USA Today reports that in the fiscal year 2019, 19 Power Five schools took in at least $20 million in ticket revenue alone, with Ohio State pulling in a whopping $51 million. All told, Power Five public schools reported $1 billion in football ticket revenue. They need butts in seats.

Without that football gate money, universities might literally have to shut other parts of campus down. Stanford already discontinued 11 sports programs, and pushing to play with mostly-barren stadiums might have further dominoes falling across the country as budgets are tightened.

And full stadiums in 2020 are now officially a mirage. Coronavirus spikes in the American south and west have thrown cold water on the most romantic, Kenny Chesney ‘Boys of Fall’ dreams.

Time for Kenny to write that musical sequel. Boys of Spring will do fine. The pigskin will fly in March, April, and May quite nicely. TV contracts will adjust and rights fees will move with the schedule. Bowl games and Super Bowl LIV in June with stadiums packed to the gills? I’ll take it. 

LSU coach Ed Orgeron was not wrong at Mike Pence’s event Monday when he said, “We need football. It’s the lifeblood of our country.” I’d never argue the game’s importance to our nation, right or wrong. But it can all happen in the spring, and happen in a form much closer to one that we know and love.

Is there a guarantee this vaccine will work? No. But it’s a risk well worth taking. So adjust those football fantasies and think longingly of a new gridiron March Madness, and trading Turkey Bowl games in for Bunny Bowls over Easter.