The National Football League released its schedule for the 2020 season to great fanfare on May 7 but commissioner Roger Goodell immediately admitted that changes may be necessary due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.
In a statement, Goodell said: “The release of the NFL schedule is something our fans eagerly anticipate every year, as they look forward with hope and optimism to the season ahead. In preparing to play the season as scheduled, we will continue to make our decisions based on the latest medical and public health advice, in compliance with government regulations, and with appropriate safety protocols to protect the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel, and our communities.
“We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this off-season in safely and efficiently conducting key activities such as free agency, the virtual off-season program, and the 2020 NFL draft,” Goodell said.
The released schedule makes no overt allowances for any coronavirus-related changes, with the Kansas City Chiefs opening the defense of their Super Bowl championship by hosting the Houston Texans on September 10 in the season opener, which will be broadcast by NBC. But there are small elements, such as synchronization of some teams’ bye weeks, that could make schedule changes easier if needed.
According to ESPN, however, Super Bowl LV – which is slated for February 7, 2021, in Tampa, Florida – could be pushed back by weeks or even months to allow for a possible delay to the start of the season and moving the entire calendar back by as many weeks as required.
It is also possible that the 16-game regular season could be reduced to 14 games or fewer depending on how the health crisis develops.
“We’re totally focused on February 7 with the regular season kicking off as scheduled,” said Rob Higgins, the president and chief executive of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl Host Committee. “If adjustments needed to take place, we would be prepared to do that. But we haven’t been instructed to do that whatsoever.”
As of now, though, the NFL, its teams and broadcasters are acting as if the league will start and finish its season as per normal, with the release of its schedule.
Elsewhere of note, assuming no changes, legendary quarterback Tom Brady will make his debut for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on September 13 when he will take on fellow 40-plus quarterback Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints.
In total, the Buccaneers – who will become must-watch TV with the arrival of Brady and former New England Patriots teammate Rob Gronkowski – will have five primetime match-ups, including a stretch of three in a row midseason. Last year, the Bucs played just one night game during a 7-9 campaign.
SoFi Stadium, the $5bn new home of the Los Angeles Rams and Los Angeles Chargers, will be unveiled in primetime on NBC’s Sunday Night Football in Week One with the Rams taking on the Dallas Cowboys.
“To be able to start at SoFi Stadium on Sunday Night Football against the Cowboys, we couldn’t be more excited about that,” Rams coach Sean McVay said on NFL Network.
Meanwhile, Allegiant Stadium, the new home of the Las Vegas Raiders, will be given a primetime showcase to make its debut and be featured on Monday Night Football on September 21, with the Raiders facing the Saints. That game, on the 50th anniversary of Monday Night Football, will be simulcast on ESPN and ABC, making it the first regular-season NFL broadcast on ABC since the 2005 season. The Raiders will have four primetime games at home in total.
Other highlights include a rare Friday afternoon game, when the Minnesota Vikings will play at the Saints on Christmas Day. The NFL most recently played a Friday game in 2009.
The traditional Thanksgiving Day tripleheader will feature the Texans at the Detroit Lions, followed by the Washington Redskins at the Cowboys, and in the nightcap, the Baltimore Ravens at the Pittsburgh Steelers.
The NFL will celebrate its 100th birthday on September 17 when the Cleveland Browns will host the Cincinnati Bengals, with the NFL Network broadcast paying tribute to the birthplace of the NFL in nearby Canton, Ohio.
There is also provision in Weeks 15 and 16 for Saturday games to be held on December 19 and December 26, respectively. One of these games will be exclusively streamed by Amazon as part of a new agreement.
For the 2020 season, the league’s playoffs will expand from 12 to 14 teams. The move had been widely expected after the NFL Players Association narrowly approved a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement in early March. Under the new format, only the teams with the best record in the AFC and NFC will get a bye, with each conference gaining an additional Wild Card team.
The NFL has also called off plans to play any international games in 2020 due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. The league had intended to have one game in Mexico and four in the UK as part of its international play plan this year, but travel restrictions stemming from the public health crisis led it to mandate that all games be played this year in the US.
Because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, a fervent push by teams to sell individual tickets in concert with the schedule release has been tempered this year in several team markets, and won’t be happening at all for the New York Jets.
The slow activity continued following the schedule release, as many industry executives around the ticketing space reported immediate NFL-related sales volume at a tiny fraction of prior years. And when seeking to buy any NFL tickets through Ticketmaster, fans are greeted with multiple warnings through the purchase flow about the potential of reschedulings due to Covid-19.
It also remains unclear when and if the NFL will be able to play in front fans in the 2020 season. California Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, said he does not see the likelihood of fans attending games in any large numbers before the advent of a vaccine for Covid-19, something generally estimated by medical experts to be at least a year away from existing and perhaps longer.