It might sound like fantasy football in these times of uncertainty, but NFL executives said Tuesday they anticipate the league playing a full slate of football in the fall.
“All of our discussions, all of our focus has been on a normal, traditional season, starting on time, playing in front of fans, in our regular stadiums,” NFL executive vice president and general counsel Jeff Pash said in a conference call with reporters.
Whereas virtually every other sports league has ground to a halt amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the NFL — five months from the scheduled kickoff of the season — is making player moves and structural changes as the only show in town.
Team owners voted Tuesday to expand the 2020 playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, meaning there will be two more games on wild-card weekend — a total of three each on Saturday and Sunday — and only the No. 1 seed in each conference will secure a first-round bye.
CBS and NBC will broadcast an additional wild-card game. Additionally, as part of CBS’ coverage, a separately produced telecast of the game will air on Nickelodeon, tailored for a younger audience. NBC, its new streaming service Peacock and all will broadcast an additional wild-card game on Jan. 10.
Unlike typical years, the schedule will be released after the draft, which is scheduled for April 23-25. The league hasn’t announced when it will release the schedule but said it will happen no later than May 9.
And the draft itself remains a work in progress, with one of the few certainties being it will not take place in Las Vegas as originally planned.
“The planning remains fluid,” Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president for club business and league events, said on a conference call.
“We’re confident that we can deliver a powerful, competitively equitable and unifying draft,” he said.
The three-day event will be conducted at remote locales, including video connectivity with about 50 prospects in their homes, as well as the option to virtually “pull in” some current and former players, and even fans.
O’Reilly described it as a hub-and-spokes format, with commissioner Roger Goodell at the hub announcing the picks, and the spokes reaching out to all 32 club locations.
The league has outlined four basic principles for the event, which will be broadcast by ABC, ESPN and NFL Network:
1. Ensuring the selection process is competitively equitable, efficient and safe for all involved.
2. Celebrating all the draft prospects in this life-changing moment, welcoming them to the NFL family even if doing it remotely.
3. Engaging and providing an escape for fans. Telling the human stories across TV and social. Allowing fan access so fans can gather virtually and share their passion for their team.
4. Using the three days of the draft to help support and raise money for those most vulnerable and impacted by the coronavirus crisis.
O’Reilly said the NFL will maintain consistent health guidelines across all locations, including the homes of prospects. Those include no more than 10 people in every room, with everyone a physical distance of at least six feet apart; consistent hand hygiene; and anyone who is sick, has a fever, or upper-respiratory symptoms stays away.
Asked what gives the NFL confidence it could play a season uninterrupted by the coronavirus crisis, Pash said: “I think what the doctors are looking at are models that address the effectiveness of different kinds of interventions, on how the curve has trended down and tailed off in other countries, and what they believe will be the result based on the modeling that’s been done in this country.
“Keeping in mind that we’re still in March, so there are quite a few months between now and when our season would begin, the belief and the information that we have is leading us to continue to focus on having the season start on time and be played in a normal way.”