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A look at possible long-term effects on the NFL from the current pandemic

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There are a lot of things being forced on the league - and not all of them may be strictly temporary.

Super Bowl XLV Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images

The NFL is still plowing ahead with getting the regular season started on time. There is every intention of playing a full 16-game schedule and having a 14-team playoff. But this is going to be a very different year with the multiple adjustments because of the coronavirus pandemic. There is an assumption that once we get through this season, things will be more or less back to normal in 2021.

But will they?

Given how unpredictable things have been so far, we may need to consider what could change for the NFL for next year, and perhaps beyond. While we are mostly concerned about how this affects the Dallas Cowboys, the issues are clearly league-wide.

Preseason games

This has always been something of a bone of contention for the players and the league. Veterans absolutely hated them, since they were risking any non-guaranteed salary coming to them for meaningless contests. It led to more and more stars being limited in their snaps, making some pretty hard to watch affairs even more desultory. The league argued that these games were needed to evaluate players and determine roster spots. But the real value of those games was the extra revenue generated, since season ticket holders had to pay for the preseason contests as well.

Some evidence for this is how the league indicated a willingness to cut at least one preseason game in exchange for a 17 game regular season. That was all about the money that could be generated by offering another week of games to broadcast, increasing what they could get out of the networks and streaming services.

Now, with no preseason games at all, should the league pull off the year successfully, which means putting the product out there for those broadcasters and streamers to use, then the argument for reducing or eliminating preseason on a permanent basis is much stronger. And that could be an important bargaining chip given the really big elephant standing at the 50-yard line.

The salary cap

Tony Pauline put up an article on the current negotiations between the NFL and NFLPA to work out how to make this season work, and this bit probably strikes fear into the hearts of owners and players alike.

Estimates of what the hit can look like towards the salary cap

Based on current evaluations, the estimated loss of revenue for 16 games with no fans is estimated at $65 to $70 million per club. The salary cap is estimated to fall from $199 million to $134 – $129 million if this were to happen. It has been a point of emphasis that neither the league nor the NFLPAds wants a drop in the salary cap.

The NFL and NFLPA are still negotiating how to deal with the loss of revenue/salary cap. The NFL still desires to escrow 35% of player salaries from 2020 to pay for artificially increasing the 2021 salary cap. The NFLPA wants to pay the deficit down over the remaining years of the CBA.

That is a huge loss of revenue, and under the salary cap system, it directly affects the money that teams are allowed to pay their players. Something has to give, and this has the potential to be a real disruption for the NFL moving forward.

One thing that neither side seems to want to address is just suspending the cap for a year or more. The owners love the cap, because it automatically limits how much profit they have to forego to pay stars and build a competitive roster. Players have been sold on the idea of the rising cap putting more money in their pockets. But now, with almost no chance of filling any stadium this season, that revenue is going to plunge and drag the cap down.

Baseball has no real cap system in place, and somehow manages to stay profitable despite lagging popularity. And even with all that has happened, huge amounts of money are still being thrown at MLB players.

Because of the reliance on local money and a normal 162 game season, baseball has a very different economic structure, and big market teams like the Mets are able to pay out a lot more than smaller teams. Still, it makes it hard for the NFL to insist that the cap is the only way to go forward.

The current situation is not likely to signal the demise of the salary cap in the NFL, but is does create a lot of pressure to make changes and be more flexible. In any case, there are huge questions to be answered just to keep football moving forward, and those answers could be very difficult.

It’s not going to be easy.

Attendance

The widespread assumption is that in a year, social distancing and wearing masks will become things of the past. Who knows, though? We just don’t know enough about the coronavirus to make accurate predictions. The questions around an effective vaccine and when it could be ready will have a lot to do with this issue.

Until all of the coronavirus issues are resolved, limited attendance to spread spectators out along with masks could be a long-term thing. Seat revenue may not recover fully right away.

At a minimum, the NFL needs to have some contingency planning for reduced attendance in future years. If there are any limitations on how many fans can come to the games, then the revenues will continue to be depressed.

Keeping the players and staffs safe

However things develop, practice and offseason activities will likely need to be ready to deal with an ongoing pandemic, or re-occurrences in future years.

This also could be something that affects some localities more than others. If there is a regional outbreak that doesn’t spread to the nation as a whole, then of course the teams within that region must adjust. That then raises the question of whether the league needs to mandate that all teams adopt the same precautions. It would create a competitive disadvantage for a team to have to cancel OTAs or maintain strict social distancing while others didn’t.

We are hopeful we will see some form of pro football this year, but the struggles the NFL is facing may be much longer in duration than we want.