As professional sports adjust to COVID-19 restrictions, teams around the country are working to make the game-day experience just as exhilarating as it used to be. Much of the excitement stems from every NFL team’s heart and soul: the fans. Previously, stands were packed every Sunday as fans gathered to cheer on their respective teams. This year, however, the league must work diligently to attract as many fans as possible to the stands while simultaneously adhering to state Center for Disease Control guidelines. Since the NFL never released a uniform statement prohibiting fans from attending games, each team is responsible for devising its own unique stadium capacities in adherence with statewide law.
While some stadiums will be allowing fans to sit in the stands at a reduced capacity, the rest will be restricting fan attendance and using/employing pre-recorded crowd noise to emulate cheering. Take Hard Rock Stadium, for example: home to the Miami Dolphins, Hard Rock allowed 13,000 fans to attend the team’s home opener against the Bills on Sunday, September 20th. Back in August, Miami owner Stephen Ross announced his team would be opening stadium seating to fans. Miami, a hotspot for COVID-19 cases back in July, maintains that the team will be practicing safe protocols while hosting games.
Division rival Buffalo Bills’ head coach expressed concern.
“I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be on the surface what appears to be a playing field that’s like that, inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums,” McDermott said.
In comparison, the Chicago Bears’ historic Soldier Field will not be allowing any fans to attend games. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot expressed her thoughts in early September.
“I would love to get our fans back in the stands, but we have to be smart and safe about it,” she said.
Chicago stands alongside two-thirds of the league whose stadiums will not be permitting fans. The Dallas Cowboys will be allowing the most fans in their stands this year at a whopping 20,000. AT&T Stadium where they play, however, holds one of the highest capacities for fans at 80,000. The Jacksonville Jaguars and Kansas City Chiefs are allowing 16,000 fans in their respective stadiums. On that note, most of the stadiums allowing fans are located in states that are politically solid Republican or swing states. These include states such as Texas, Ohio, Florida, Missouri, and Indiana.
As fans take a look at their team’s home-game schedule, many wonder if a home-field advantage will be similar to pre-pandemic years. Since 2003, 23 of the 32 teams in the league have had a winning record when playing at home. Additionally, in the last twenty years, home teams have won 55%-60% of the time. So, will home teams still have an advantage without packed stadiums this year? Crowd noise alone makes an opposing team’s game much more difficult. Offensive play-calling is burdensome as tens of thousands of fans shout to disorient the opposing team. NFL teams whose stadiums will not be allowing fans to attend can look forward to pre-recorded fan noise pumping through to energize their team; this could be the closest to an “advantage” that two-thirds of the league will have this year. In the first week of the 2020 season, half of the home teams (eight) won their openers. It is very possible, however, that fan presence could have increased home team success for teams like the Baltimore Ravens. Since 2000, the Ravens have boasted an astounding 118-42 record while at home (a 74% winning percentage). The Philadelphia Eagles also have an impressive 93-57 record throughout the last twenty years when playing in front of their home crowd. Without a doubt, artificial fan noise is a great substitute for the stadiums that are prohibiting fans.
But how do some of the players feel about fake fan cheering? In an interview back in August, Tennessee Titan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan shared his anticipation.
“There is a level of excitement when you have a bunch of fans going off for sure. Energy and excitement are two things that kind of go hand-in-hand. However when you go and play football it takes a few snaps, and when guys get tired, the fans kind of go away and you’re playing a football game,” he said.
Since it is still early in the season, it is not known whether or not the stadiums that are allowing fans have caused an increase in cases in their respective areas. With the difficult nature of bringing professional sports back to play amongst COVID-19 restrictions, this is just the beginning of an all-but-normal NFL season.