If the NFL decides to bite the bullet and play at least part of the 2020 season without fans in the stands, how will it affect the New England Patriots?
While COVID-19 has done its best to defeat the seasons of other American sports, the NFL is prepared to push ahead with a regular September start to the 2020-21 schedule. The league is running operations and arranging the summer calendar as they always do, and Dolphins owner Stephen Ross declared that the season will “definitely happen.”
Once Stephen Ross says it, I guess it’s the law.
The catch, unfortunately, is the likelihood that fans will have to watch live sports return from their homes. Unless COVID-19 wanes more quickly than expected, stadium seating will probably be empty in order to adhere to social distancing norms.
While this might not seem like a huge deal for a fan eating chips on their sofa, the experience for NFL players on the field will be drastically different.
Star LA Rams DT Aaron Donald went as far as to say, “I don’t see how you could play a game without fans,” to reporters last week. This is coming from a player who plays in a stadium that’s rarely full in the first place.
To most teams and players, playing in a lonely arena is an enormous drawback. The New England Patriots, for example, have an immense home-field advantage in Gillette Stadium, having gone 121-23 there since its construction in 2002.
However, I’m not sure the fans are specifically the reason for such dominance.
Gillette Stadium is the ninth-smallest NFL venue in terms of capacity, and the fans aren’t as notorious or raucous as the likes of Steelers or Raiders bleeding-hearts.
It’s the stadium and the team itself that carries the intimidation; it’s a throne room of champions, the house that belonged to Brady. A silent Gillette won’t be as bizarre as other empty arenas.
Teams don’t fear Patriots fans, they fear Patriots players. The only thing scary about an empty Gillette will be the musket-fire celebration on a quiet field.
The other aspect to a crowd-less Foxborough is the lost revenue. New England stands to lose the second-most money without fans, coming behind only JerryWorld, the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium.
Fortunately, lost revenue doesn’t have any bearings on the team’s cap space or abilities, but I would like to take this time to formally acknowledge Robert Kraft’s loss.
New England plays in some of the most challenging arenas in 2020
Now, looking ahead to the Pats schedule, what might their away games hold? Will visiting their competitors’ empty stadiums prove a small advantage? At the front of the season, absolutely.
The first two places that New England visits are Seattle and Kansas City, and immediately the Pats should be thanking the heavens that the schedule fell this way.
The Seahawks and Chiefs play in the two loudest stadiums in football, with some of the most passionate fans in the country. Seattle’s got their “12th man” reputation, and the Chiefs’ tomahawk chop is equal parts cheesy and disheartening. The Pats might get a lucky break if they get to escape those crowds.
As the schedule continues, New England visits the Jets and the Bills, two teams with middle-of-the-road home-field advantage. Buffalo might be spared a couple drunken concussions from tailgating, which is ultimately a good thing.
The Pats’ next stop is in Houston, an imposing stadium with unimposing fans. There’s never been a lot of insane Texans passion, and head coach Bill O’Brien might enjoy even more peace and quiet after trading star WR DeAndre Hopkins.
In an ironic twist, however, their next two stops are already accustomed to social distancing in their stadiums. The Pats visit the Chargers and the Rams back to back at the start of December. The Chargers have had famously terrible attendance since moving to Los Angeles, so they might very well be unperturbed by silence from the crowd. The LA Rams are in the exact same boat.
Therefore, while New England is very lucky to visit a vacant CenturyLink Field in Seattle, their trip to lonely Los Angeles might not give them much of an advantage whatsoever. The back-to-back LA game anomaly also makes me wonder if Coach Belichick and the gang are going to spend the whole week on the West Coast.
The Patriots’ final away game is in Miami, and I’m not sure if losing the crowd will be enough to help the Pats win a game in Hard Rock Stadium. Perhaps if the sun is blocked out and the teal is stripped from the walls, New England might be able to shake their Miami curse.
So, New England gets to experience every angle of a fan-less 2020 season. Some stadiums the team visits will present them with a large advantage, and some won’t be much different at all.
There is one “best case scenario” to work the schedule in their favor: It’s possible that somewhere around the season’s halfway point, the NFL will decide to let fans back in and resume entirely as normal. This would mean that the Pats could visit Seattle and Kansas City in complete peace and then have their own fans return for the backstretch of the season.
In any scenario, I’m glad the sport’s returning, and here’s to a 2020 that every fan can properly enjoy!