While sports fans wait for life and recreation to return to normal amid COVID-19 stay-at-home orders and social distancing guidance, professional sports leagues are hard at work trying to reopen for business and resume competition as quickly and safely as possible. The NHL plans to announce its strategy for restarting its 2019-20 season on Tuesday afternoon, while other sports leagues across Europe such as the German Bundesliga have already resumed.
The NFL is in the fortunate position of being in its offseason during the lockdown, but continued delays for the resumption of practice and on-field activities have put the league’s early September start in question. However, a report from Yahoo! Sports on Tuesday indicates that the league is looking into opening up team facilities to coaches and players before the end of June.
According to Yahoo NFL reporter Charles Robinson, the league is considering allowing head coaches to return to team facilities next week. That could pave the way for players to return for a minicamp by late June:
Sources told Yahoo Sports that if coaches resume their in-house work next week, minicamps including players could be scheduled as early as June 15 or as late as June 27, depending on COVID-19 data and whether a handful of franchises get a “go ahead” signal from state governments to resume full operations.
The biggest sticking point, according to one of Robinson’s sources, is the state of California, which has not yet announced whether pro sports can resume activities. If that state allows for teams to hold activities without fans in attendance, that may be the final hurdle to getting these minicamps scheduled.
Still, there remain significant questions about the safety of these workouts for those involved. The CDC and most states still recommend avoiding mass gatherings, with some states still prohibiting gatherings of more than ten people. Defining and implementing a COVID-19 testing protocol will certainly be a necessary step prior to bringing players back for practice, even with tackling prohibited during offseason workouts.
To bring this plan to fruition, the NFLPA would also need to agree to any adjusted provisions for minicamps to begin. Union president JC Tretter announced that the union has not yet agreed to any reopening plan, though he did not indicate whether or not the league has engaged the NFLPA about any ideas.
Still, if this plan is enacted, it would provide a tangible step forward towards starting the 2020 NFL season on time. Training camps and preseason may be shortened, but with the league planning to shorten the preseason in future seasons anyhow, this should be achievable early on.
However, piling tens of thousands of people into a stadium to watch a game is still another major question, while players participating in a game in front of empty stands would be bizarre. One recent idea comes from a soccer club in Denmark’s Superliga: “virtual grandstands.” AGF Aarhus is working with Zoom to set up rooms of fans, which would then be displayed on virtual screens set up in front of the lower level of seats at the stadium. While issues with lag time will certainly be a challenge, there would at least be some level of fan interaction, audio, and involvement using this method, which could be adapted at NFL stadiums.
For now, those questions can take a back seat as the NFL tries to find a safe way to get coaches and players back in team facilities. But for now, it appears that there is at least a decent chance that there will be real, live football practices before the end of June.