The NFL's loftiest expectation is official: Full capacity stadiums in 2021

In an unprompted statement on Tuesday, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell laid out a lofty expectation when the league’s regular season kicks off in roughly five months:

Full capacity stadiums.

“All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,” Goodell said during his opening remarks to media on Tuesday, following a virtual league meeting with the NFL owners who pay his salary. “Football is simply not the same without fans, and we expect to have full stadiums in the upcoming season.”

That messaging is somewhat of a departure from the league’s “wait and see” approach going into 2020, when the NFL’s brass repeatedly stressed that the health and safety guidelines of state and local jurisdictions would dictate the league’s attendance policy. The result was a staggering attendance decline, from nearly 17 million in 2019 to 1.2 million fans during the pandemic — and a $4 billion shortfall in revenues, from roughly $16 billion in 2019 to $12 billion last season.

That's made restoring fan attendance one of the league’s top priorities this offseason, as the country drives toward President Joe Biden’s recently revised goal of 200 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines in the first 100 days of his administration. But it’s unclear how Goodell’s “expectation” will align with the science of a pandemic that still hasn’t subsided, particularly if COVID infection rates don’t drop as vaccinations become more widely distributed. According to CDC statistics, nationwide infection rates in the United States spiked in early January following the holiday travel season. Then began a steady decline until mid-March, when there was a slight uptick in infection rates over the last two weeks.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league expects to have stadiums at full fan capacity this fall. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said the league expects to have stadiums at full fan capacity this fall. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

None of that takes into account whether COVID variants could change the outlook of declining infections, or if the various vaccines being distributed prove to be as effective as advertised. Four months from now, the league could see health data information that either emboldens its expectation of full stadiums or wipes out the idea altogether.

But what’s clear is the NFL is serious about filling up its seats again, once again banging the drum on Tuesday that limited capacity stadiums in 2020 resulted in no known significant clusters of infections in the surrounding community. The implication is clear: The league managed to successfully pull off smaller crowds in the teeth of the pandemic without a vaccine, so it stands to reason that if the protections strengthen and infections decline, the NFL won’t waste time getting back to business as usual on game days.

The interesting twist thus far is that league is on the record saying it won’t mandate that its players get vaccinated heading into the 2021 season. Instead, the NFL will suggest that it's in the best interest of the players and surrounding personnel, but thus far it hasn’t suggested it will incentivize vaccinations. That’s a departure from Major League Baseball, which advised teams that health and safety protocols would be relaxed for players who were vaccinated. For the NFL, it’s not even clear what the league’s protocols will look like in the next few months, let alone during the 2021 season, because the league and player’s union haven’t finalized a structure for an offseason slated to kick into gear in mid-April.

The NFLPA has stated that it would prefer a similar offseason to 2020, which essentially took the league’s entire in-house schedule and made it fully virtual, including classroom work, training and coaching sessions. There still appears to be a divide on that issue, with coaching staffs preferring to get rosters back into the fold for the organized team activities and post-draft minicamps that were staples until last season.

League and union sources said both sides hope to have made significant progress on the offseason structure by the end of next week, in the hopes of giving staffs and players time for planning purposes before team activities start up once again.

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