Scattered Fans Throughout NFL Stadiums Creates Potential Competitive Imbalance
By: Brendan Hecht
Football is back.
Let that sink in for a moment. Most of us have been waiting an eternity to hear those three words. Football fans have just experienced their last Sunday without football until Christmas, hopefully. The Kansas City Chiefs hosted Thursday Night Football last night to begin the season, and fans were there in attendance.
During the upcoming NFL season, there will be many new protocols and guidelines to protect against a potential COVID-19 outbreak. One of these guidelines relates to the regulation of fans attending NFL games. Rather than it is the NFL who has the power, it is the respective States who control the regulation of the fans.
Each jurisdiction has the power to set the guidelines for fans attending sporting events in their respective state. Literally speaking, this could come down to a state Governor, or the Mayor of a city. Each state is dealing with different circumstances regarding COVID-19, and the NFL has deferred to each state to make the determination as to what is in the best interest of their state in setting appropriate restrictions. Although each state’s legislature differs, generally speaking, the Governor/Mayor will work with local health officials to determine the best course of action. The league affirmed this by announcing to the teams that they will have to follow their local health COVID-19 guidelines. Although it is a fluid situation, here is a breakdown of the number of fans allowed in each stadium:
No Fans for the whole season: Raiders and Washington Football Team.
No fans for at least the first two games: Bears, Bengals, Bills, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Chargers, Eagles, Falcons, Giants, Jets, Lions, Packers, Patriots, Rams, Ravens, Seahawks, Steelers, and Vikings.
No fans for the home opener: Broncos, Panthers, Saints, Texans, Titans, and 49ers.
Teams allowing fans: Cowboys will have fans but won’t announce the exact number (under 50% capacity), Colts can have 2,500 fans at their home opener (4% capacity), Browns can have 6,000 fans for each of their first two home games, Dolphins can have 13,000 (20% capacity), Chiefs can have 16,000 (22% capacity), and the Jaguars can have 16,791 (25% capacity). 
Why would the NFL allow each team to have control over the attendance resulting in an unequal playing field? One explanation is that at the end of the day, the NFL is a business. There have been estimates the NFL could lose more than three billion dollars by having no fans. Money is of the utmost importance to the NFL so by allowing state and local officials to set the fan regulations, it allows the NFL a chance to salvage some revenue from ticket sales while also complying with relevant legal regulations. The NFL’s deference to local government guidance takes the pressure off the league to make a difficult decision regarding fan attendance while simultaneously protecting them from negligence claims. However, without implementing a universal fan policy, the NFL is allowing some teams to have a competitive advantage.
Personnel around the NFL have already voiced their displeasure with the lack of uniformity. Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said, “I think there are some unfair things going on around it as far as some teams can have fans and some teams can’t. So I think there is a competitive disadvantage in some of those areas.” Bills head coach Sean McDermott also voiced his concerns, “I think it’s honestly ridiculous that there will be… what appears to be a playing field that is like that. Inconsistently across the league with the different away stadiums.”
For now, many teams will have to wait on local authorities to give them the green light for more fans. Fair or not, the NFL has passed this issue onto the teams with the hope local officials determine the appropriate decision. In other words, the NFL has a viable excuse for the potentially competitive imbalance as they have punted and the ball is no longer in their hands.
Brendan is a rising 2L at Arizona State University.
 Daniel Kaplan, NFL To Allow Teams To Set Varying Fan Capacity Levels When Season Commences, The Athletic (Jun. 23, 2020), https://theathletic.com/1888367/2020/06/23/nfl-to-allow-teams-to-set-varying-fan-capacity-levels-when-season-commences/?source=twittered.  Id.  ESPN NFL Nation, Will There Be Fans At NFL Games In 2020? Where All 32 Teams Stand For The Regular Season, ESPN(Sept. 4, 2020), https://www.espn.com/nfl/story/_/id/29590097/will-there-fans-nfl-games-2020-where-all-32-teams-stand-regular-season.  Mike Florio, As More Teams Announce They’ll Have No Fans, The Competitive Imbalance Grows, PFT (Aug. 25, 2020), https://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2020/08/25/as-more-teams-announce-theyll-have-no-fans-the-competitive-imbalance-grows.  Daniel Kaplan, NFL To Allow Teams To Set Varying Fan Capacity Levels When Season Commences, The Athletic (Jun. 23, 2020), https://theathletic.com/1888367/2020/06/23/nfl-to-allow-teams-to-set-varying-fan-capacity-levels-when-season-commences/?source=twittered.  Nick Shook, Mike Zimmer Concerned About ‘Disadvantage’ Of Fan Attendance In Some NGL Stadiums, NFL.com (Aug. 21, 2020), https://www.nfl.com/news/mike-zimmer-concerned-about-disadvantage-of-fan-attendance-in-some-nfl-stadiums.  Sal Maiorana, Bills Coach Sean McDermott Says Inconsistent NFL Fan Policy Is ‘Ridiculous’, Democrat & Chronicle (Aug. 24, 2020), https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/sports/football/nfl/bills/2020/08/24/ridiculous-sean-mcdermott-buffalo-bills-coach-calls-nfl-fan-policy/3430636001.