As the sun sets on the disrupted NHL, NBA and MLB seasons, football will soon assume a singular spotlight among the big four team sports. And while even in normal years, the NFL has perched itself at the top of the mountain, the league has not been absent criticism of its fluid, yet steadfast approach thus far, to maintain the full schedule amid daily positive COVID results among players and team personnel.
The incessant melodrama of schedule shuffling — accompanied by rumors of harsh and unprecedented penalties for teams that violate safety protocols — has only fueled interest and fan appetites.
In polling conducted right before NFL week five, 72% of football fans were following the league more closely than usual, a jump from 51% at the start of the season.
Count me among them. I am an obsessive, lifelong fan of the Tennessee Titans, who are in the crosshairs of the melodrama, with 24 staff and players receiving positive COVID tests over the past two weeks. Two games have already been affected, and there are lots of fingers being pointed at the franchise about its possible complicity in the outbreak.
But in another disclosure, our firm has conducted research for the NFL. So, while I have an emotional stake in what happens to my Titans, I also know that the league is facing some challenging marketing, operational and financial questions. Does the NFL continue to take all measures possible to maintain a 16-game schedule, be it forcing COVID-stricken teams to forfeit, or play severely short-handed and without the benefit of full practice weeks? Or will the league need to make similar pivots taken by MLB, NHL and NBA, all of whom shortened their schedules this season to assure safety and attempt to maintain competitive integrity, while sacrificing revenue?
The most recent research (conducted independent of the league) shines some light on where NFL fans would like to see things. We asked over 400 of them, as the Titans outbreak was occurring, “Which of the following should apply to NFL teams with players who test positive for COVID 19 during the week leading up to a game?”
Only 29% said that the team should be required to play their scheduled game for the current week using available roster and practice squad players. Nearly three in four fans said they didn’t want to see the team play short-handed or with a marginalized roster, with 47% saying the scheduled game for that week should either be postponed and rescheduled for a later date, and 24% saying it should be canceled, with the affected team’s winning percentage at the end of the season determining playoff eligibility.
One can conclude, then, that maintaining competitive integrity and an abundance of precaution are clearly preferred by NFL fans.
The Titans fan in me concurs with the preservation of competitive integrity sentiment. Punishing or looking to focus blame on one particular team seems counter to that ideal, particularly amidst a pandemic.
That said, from a purely marketing and entertainment perspective, this added layer of melodrama as fans wonder if and when the next team outbreak will occur, adds another marketing element that should only add to the intrigue and allure of the NFL season. The league and affiliated brands can certainly leverage that.