In what is arguably the most stark snapshot of the revenue loss the NFL will incur through the 2020 pandemic, the league announced that it expects to top 1 million fans in attendance this season when the final regular-season games are tallied by Monday.
While that sounds like a lot in a COVID era that denied entrance to many spectators, you’d have to go all the way back to the 1.1 million fans hosted by the NFL in 1938 to find a season so sparsely attended. And that was a league that had only 10 teams.
In 2020, hosting 1 million fans actually represents a staggering hit to the NFL’s coffers considering that the league drew more than 17 million fans during the 2019 regular season, accounting for billions in stadium revenue flowing into the bottom line.
Exactly how many billions did NFL lose?
Forbes estimated that hosting no fans in 2020 would have resulted in roughly $5.5 billion in lost stadium revenues for the league, including ticket dollars, concessions, parking, etc. Using rudimentary math, and assuming that the NFL’s pricing structure didn’t change dramatically for the few teams that hosted fans in 2020, it stands to reason that drawing roughly 1/17th of the 2019 fan base translates to collecting 1/17th of that $5.5 billion figure.
If that theory holds, the NFL will have lost more than $5.1 billion in stadium revenue this season.
Of course, the league is more into silver linings this season than highlighting shortfalls. And 1 million fans is seen as an accomplishment for a league that was approaching the season in late summer wondering if any tickets would be sold this year. All told, 19 franchises hosted fans this season — albeit on a sliding scale that closed the doors quickly for some teams as infection rates rose during the course of the season. According to league data, the Dallas Cowboys and massive AT&T Stadium hosted the most average fans per game this season at just over 27,000. The Jacksonville Jaguars were a distant second at nearly 16,000 per game.
Who led in NFL fan attendance?
None of those figures were reached without some level of controversy, as some critics suggested the NFL should have shut out fans completely to mitigate risk associated with COVID-19 and public gatherings for much of 2020. The league pressed on, repeatedly stating that it was working with local and state health officials, and that no virus clusters had been traced back to its games.
That has been a less certain claim as the season has progressed, and so many NFL cities have seen COVID infections rise to the point that accurate contact tracing has become far more difficult in recent months.
At least one thing was clear: The two states that most adamantly sought to keep their economies open during the pandemic, Texas and Florida, were also the two states that helped the most when floating NFL attendance numbers this season.
With governors who aggressively supported the continuation of football in their states, Texas and Florida accounted for five of the top six attendance draws for the NFL, featuring the Cowboys and Houston Texans (first and fifth in average attendance), alongside the Jaguars (second), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (third), and Miami Dolphins (sixth).
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