Texans, Cowboys could have half-full stadiums, other teams might have no fans. How will that affect NFL games?

Eric Edholm and Frank Schwab
·10 min read

One memory Mark Sanchez has from his NFL days is a Styx song.

The Pittsburgh Steelers use “Renegade” during the fourth quarter to fire up the fans and the team. Steelers fans sing along while Heinz Field becomes loud and electric.

“When you don’t have that, with everyone singing, you just have the song,” said Sanchez, who hosts the 4th and Forever podcast on Showtime. “It’s not the same.”

When the NFL season starts in 2020, it will be different because there almost surely won’t be full stadiums with atmospheres like Pittsburgh. And the size of crowds could be different from stadium to stadium, depending on state government regulations.

Something will be lost.

“As an NFC North member, going to Lambeau Field and hearing, ‘I wanna bang on your drum all day!’ I don’t want to hear that s---,” former Chicago Bears guard Kyle Long said, as he loudly sang the Todd Rundgren song the Packers play after touchdowns.

“And it’s not the fans — it’s the PA system. So at Lambeau this year, when they score a touchdown, there’s not going to be 60,000 Green Bay fans, and therefore no, ‘I wanna bang on your drum all day!’ And you can get over that, which I couldn’t … I hate that song!”

So not everyone will miss it. But it won’t be the same, and it might not be equal.

Which states might allow some fans?

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said this week that the NFL is planning to play its regular season and preseason as scheduled with increased protocols and safety measures, with adjustments as necessary. The league hasn’t made any comment regarding stadium attendance.

“We will continue to make decisions based on the latest advice of medical and public health officials, as well as in full compliance with current and future government regulations,” McCarthy said.

On Thursday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, wasn’t optimistic about the prospect of a football season.

“Unless players are essentially in a bubble — insulated from the community and they are tested nearly every day — it would be very hard to see how football is able to be played this fall,” Fauci told CNN chief medical correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta. “If there is a second wave, which is certainly a possibility and which would be complicated by the predictable flu season, football may not happen this year.”

The league, however, has tried to maintain a level playing field for everyone, but it’s hard to see the NFL denying teams a chance to have a half-full stadium and the revenue that comes along with it, if their states allow it.

Texas is the one state to put a tentative number on attendance for football games in the fall. Gov. Greg Abbott declared that stadiums can be 50 percent full in the current phase of reopening. Most of the other 23 states that have an NFL team have not put a number on stadium attendance (read Charles Robinson’s state-by-state breakdown).

Some states have made comments that indicate partially full stadiums will be OK. Colorado Gov. Jared Polis told The Athletic, “If it’s one [in] every four seats or whatever, the more, the merrier as long as it’s not putting everyone in danger.” Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards speculated on April 15 that perhaps every other seat or every third seat at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome would be sold. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy told SI.com he hopes to see fans for Giants and Jets games, but “I can’t promise it.”

Some states have stated that they expect sports with no fans in the fall. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the U.S. Open tennis tournament in early September could happen without fans, which is an indication that Buffalo Bills games will be the same. You can see how the number of fans in NFL stadiums could vary from team to team.

Ohio is an example of the way state governments will reign in the NFL, if it has grandiose plans. The Pro Football Hall of Fame was optimistic about having its annual Hall of Fame Game with fans. Then a week later, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine said it was “highly unlikely” that the game would have a large crowd. It’s clear the NFL won’t unilaterally decide on fans.

“We, the governors of all the states, whether they own the facilities or not, will be the determining factor as to whether or not they are allowed to play sports,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan told ESPN.

Unless the NFL wants to fight teams like the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Texans on making revenue off 50 percent of its stadium for home games, we could see a situation in which some teams have 50 percent of fans in the stadium, and other teams have none. That would be an advantage for some teams.

Teams like the Dallas Cowboys could at least have half of their stadium full. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
Teams like the Dallas Cowboys could at least have half of their stadiums full. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

Home-field advantage? Which teams actually stand to lose

The New England Patriots have been the best home team in the NFL over the past three seasons combined. They’ve also had the best home record over the past five seasons and the past 10 seasons, cumulatively.

But that’s no shock. They’ve been the best team in football over that stretch, too.

So it’s not fair to suggest they’ll be the most vulnerable to regression if attendances are severely impacted. They’ve been good pretty much anywhere they’ve played.

But if we take all 32 teams and measure their home performance versus their road records — home win percentage minus road win percentage — we get a clearer picture over which teams do far better in their own stadiums (even if it’s not a perfect metric).

The teams that had the biggest home-field win-percentage differentials over the past three seasons have been the Miami Dolphins (plus-.333 at home), Indianapolis Colts and the now Las Vegas Raiders (both plus-.292), who moved from Oakland.

Perhaps more surprising: Four teams — three of them residing on the West Coast — actually had better road records than home marks over the 2017-19 seasons.

The Los Angeles Chargers and Seattle Seahawks both had a negative win-percentage differential of minus-.083 at at home, followed by the Los Angeles Rams (minus-.042) and Detroit Lions (minus-.021). Two other teams, the Atlanta Falcons and New York Giants, both had the same record at home and on the road the past three seasons combined.

It’s one thing for the Chargers, playing in front of the smallest home crowds the past three seasons at their undersized soccer stadium, to be better on the road. But it’s quite another for the Seahawks — home of the “12th Man” and perennially one of the loudest football stadiums on the planet — to win more on the road.

Over the past five years, only the Falcons have been cumulatively better on the road (.550 win percentage) vs. at home (.525). The Rams are just below them, with matching .550 marks at home and on the road. In that same span, the teams with the biggest home-field bumps have been the Dolphins (plus-.250), Texans (plus-.225) and Green Bay Packers (plus-.213).

Does that mean that teams that typically struggle at home (compared to the road) will thrive in the case of empty stadiums in 2020? Or that teams who are heavyweights at home and comparatively poorer on the road are due for regression? Not necessarily, as there are dozens of other factors that must be considered.

But some players believe that effect could be felt.

“I can promise you this: There will be teams that have historically have been juggernauts at home that may look like puppy dogs this year,” Long said. “The road is no place for the weak of mind. I think this levels the playing field for a lot of people.”

Loudest stadiums figure to lose an edge without full crowd

In our informal poll among former players, three stadiums ranked above the pack in terms of crowd noise in their experiences — Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, CenturyLink Field in Seattle and the Superdome in New Orleans. There hasn’t been definitive word from any of the three states regarding how many fans might be allowed at games. Washington has been one of the more restrictive states through the coronavirus outbreak, however.

The Guinness Book of World Records lists Arrowhead as the record-holders for the loudest moment in NFL history, when the Chiefs hosted the Patriots in 2014. The Arrowhead crowd reaching a stunning 142.2 decibels — way beyond the threshold of pain and louder than a jet engine at 100 feet distance — cemented its status as one of the most deafening stadiums. Even so, one former Chiefs player doesn’t believe it’s the loudest.

“Yeah, Chiefs fans do not like when I bring this up,” former NFL offensive lineman Geoff Schwartz said. “I don’t think Arrowhead is the loudest stadium, and they disagree about that.”

Schwartz was with the Chiefs in 2013, the year Arrowhead initially set the record for the loudest crowd in a game against the Raiders. And his take has an extra spicy edge considering that his younger brother, Mitch, is now a pillar on the Chiefs’ offensive line. But he firmly believes the crowd’s volume isn’t fully felt by the players.

“This is why I don’t think it’s true: They don’t measure the sound at the 50-yard line,” Schwartz said. “I think the record [against the Raiders was measured] at one point in the crowd. I remember the game. We set the record in the fourth quarter of a blowout, and it wasn’t even a full crowd. Go look it up. It was a 24-7 game.”

For his money, Schwartz picks Seattle as the loudest crowd — by far.

“It’s the continual noise throughout the game that makes the difference,” he said. “Here’s what the problem with the noise is: Seattle is loud all game long.

“You come to the sideline and you can’t even hear anything still. It’s just stupid loud. ... It just builds and builds. You can’t ever feel like you catch yourself and adjust to it.”

Long agrees. Yes, he hated the Packers’ touchdown song, and Long mentioned the Minnesota Vikings’ U.S. Bank Stadium, Baltimore Ravens’ M&T Bank Stadium and the Washington Redskins’ FedEx Field (“when it’s crowded”) as other throaty crowds of note.

But his top three, in order, are Seattle first, followed by New Orleans and Kansas City.

“Those are the places that we all know of as tough places to play,” Long said. “You’re kind of taking the teeth out of the shark here (if stadiums are less than full). And now you just have to fish.”

Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, is among the loudest venues in the NFL. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Arrowhead Stadium, home of the Kansas City Chiefs, is among the loudest venues in the NFL. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

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