When the 2020 NFL season kicks off next week, it’s going to have a noticeably different feel from prior seasons, and one major reason for that is because the attendance is going to be zero at most stadiums around the league. 

For the upcoming season, the NFL decided to let each of the league’s 32 teams create their own attendance policy, which is a decision that has now created a mild controversy around the league. As things currently stand, only three teams are definitely going to allow fans to attend their home opener (Cowboys, Jaguars, Chiefs) while two other teams still on the fence (Colts, Browns). Every other team has banned fans for at least their first home game. 

The fact that some teams will have fans in attendance and some teams won’t has angered some key people around the NFL, who believe that it will lead to a competitive disadvantage for teams that don’t have fans in attendance. Despite hearing gripes from two NFL coaches and at least one owner, Roger Goodell is sticking to his guns. During a conference call this week, the NFL commissioner insisted that no one will be getting an advantage from the having fans in the stands. 

“We do not believe it’s a competitive advantage,” Goodell said, via PFT. “We discussed it very early on with our Competition Committee and with our clubs. We do not see that. We obviously have varying capacities across the league, and from our standpoint, we want to invite our fans in if we can do it safely and we can do it with the full support of local officials. We think our fans want to come to the stadium.”

Due to the pandemic, the NFL decided to let teams create their own policies with the idea that each team would set their stadium capacity based on local health protocols and policies. Although the policy is reasonable, some around the league would have liked to see the NFL put a uniform policy in place that would have kept all 32 teams on the same playing field. 

Panthers owner David Tepper voiced his frustrations on the issue during a conference call this week. 

“It’s hard not to have fans in the building, especially going to be hard not to have fans in the building if all our division rivals have fans in their buildings,” Tepper said, via The Athletic. “We hope that we will have it, and not have that competitive disadvantage.”

In the coaching department, both Mike Zimmer and Sean McDermott have made it clear that they’re not happy about the fact that the league didn’t create a uniform attendance policy. 

“I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be, on the surface, what appears to be a playing field that’s like that — inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums,” McDermott said.

Zimmer echoed McDermott’s thoughts. 

“It’s going to be very hard because some stadiums they’re allowing people in and it looks like we’re not going to have any fans in there early, which really stinks because we have unbelievable fans, and they make that place rocking every Sunday,” Zimmer said, via NFL.com. “But the best way to have homefield advantage is to play really good. Execute, make tackles, don’t make mistakes, don’t commit penalties, turnovers, all those things.”

The only way the NFL could have evened the playing field is if the league had banned fans at all stadiums for the first few weeks, but clearly Goodell and the competition committee thought it made more sense to allow fans to attend games if it were deemed safe. 

Although most stadiums will be empty in Week 1, Goodell is expecting that more teams will open up their attendance policy as the season moves along. 

“[W]e’re gonna have two or three stadiums next week which will have significant fans in them, and I believe that will continue to grow as the season goes on,” Goodell told CNBC on Wednesday, via PFT. “I think people want to get comfortable, not only our fans but also the local officials. And we support that. We want to take a cautious approach, a responsible approach, and make sure we’re doing this in the right way for our fans but also to make sure we’re doing it for our communities, to make sure we’re doing it in a way we’ll all be proud.”

If it starts to seem that teams with fans in attendance are getting a competitive advantage, it won’t be surprising if more coaches speak up about the issue. On the other hand, the attendance numbers will be so low at the few games where fans will be allowed to show up that it’s hard to imagine any team getting a huge competitive advantage. 


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