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NFL teams to tarp off lower rows of seats, sell the space

Houston Texans fans yell from the front row in the endzone at NRG Stadium. That lower-level space be tarped off across the league for the 2020 season. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The National Football League is implementing a new policy for the 2020 season in which it will tarp off the lower rows of seating at each of its stadiums and sell that camera-visible tarp space to corporate sponsors. 

The installation of the tarps, approved by owners in a June 25 virtual meeting, is designed in part to create additional distance between fans and teams’ coaches and players amid the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. But with the league, like most others around the world, looking at modified attendance at best for the foreseeable future, the tarps also represent a key source of new revenue.

The Premier League has employed a similar practice, and Major League Baseball clubs are also reportedly exploring the concept. 

The NFL’s plan will cover the first eight rows at each of the league’s 30 stadiums, and will include on-field suites, making those areas off limits to fans. 

The tarps “will provide clear separation between the players and the fans,” said Renie Anderson, NFL chief revenue officer and executive vice president of partnerships. “Clearly, obviously, it will provide a unified look on broadcasts as well…There’s no requirement for the clubs to integrate advertising. It’s somewhat of an added benefit if there is an opportunity there. There’s also an added opportunity to thank our front-line workers and to create brand messaging for the clubs as well.”

The new ad space will come with a series of rules to protect league sponsors, not unlike other facets of marketing around the league.

Expected pricing for the tarps has not been released, but it is anticipated it will fetch significant dollars and be in high demand. The league’s quartet of sideline sponsors – Bose, Gatorade, Microsoft, and Oakley – are the only ones that not normally prohibited from displaying signage within 40 feet of the playing surface, where television cameras typically focus. 

The tarps and resulting recastings of facility seat maps, however, will also help create a significant logistical challenge for ticketing, both within the 32 clubs and with various resale entities, one further complicated by the fact that there is not a blanket policy or plan for how attendance will be handled in the NFL this fall. 

It is likely that local governments will ultimately dictate what is allowed at each stadium. But not only will that vary from market to market, that also very well could change on a week-to-week basis, further altering what ticket manifests look like. The league generally plans to favor long-term season ticket holders and personal seat license holders in limited attendance scenarios. The overall situation, however, remains very tentative and fluid.

“But the focus would be on playing in home stadiums, even if that initially is without fans in some stadiums,” said Peter O’Reilly, NFL executive vice president of club business and events.

Some NFL teams are quickly started efforts to relocate season ticket holders located in lower rows.

“We are already in the process of working with and reaching out to season ticket holders making it priority to accommodate and relocate them,” said Greg Bensel, New Orleans Saints senior vice president of communications. “We will also offer them a number of options for the 2020 season including a refund or credit and it will not impact their season ticket holder status moving forward.”

Bensel said the policy will be revisited for the postseason.

The NFL, meanwhile, is still planning to start training camps on schedule in late July, even as Covid-19 cases surge in many in parts of the United States.

“The clubs have been advised that training camps are expected to open on the normal schedule,” said Jeff Pash, NFL general counsel. “The dates set for in the collective bargaining agreement, for most clubs that would be July 28. Obviously they can bring in rookies and certain other players before that.”

But the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio, set for early August, was canceled out of virus concerns. And the league is discussions with the NFL Players Association about the status of other preseason games.

“The preseason games, we’re in active discussions with the players association around those issues, and will continue at that and expect to have some resolution relatively soon and will advise the clubs at that time,” Pash said.