When coronavirus was declared a global pandemic in March, American football had just settled into its post-Super Bowl off-season, narrowly avoiding the costly and chaotic shutdowns experienced by other sports leagues around the world.
Six months later, the National Football League is making its 2020 return, as league and television executives cross their fingers for a full season of the most valuable asset in US media, currently worth more than $5bn per year.
That valuation is expected to soar above $8bn when broadcasting rights are renegotiated, something that is expected in the coming months — but between coronavirus and America’s reckoning on civil rights, events over the next 17 weeks could yet make for an upset.
For broadcasters, the value of sports programming has never been higher. “This is the single-biggest programming driver from now until the end of the year,” said Michael Nathanson, a senior media analyst at MoffettNathanson.
With US production largely shut down over the past six months, the major networks — Fox, NBC, ABC and CBS — are left with few new programmes to fill the schedule.
Some reality shows, which often already involve isolating a group of people in a remote area together, have been able to deliver new episodes. But smash hits like NBC’s This Is Us, a scripted drama, have delayed their new seasons as the pandemic rages on in the US.
A successful NFL season is far from a sure bet. The league is implementing strict testing and hygiene measures for teams, but their sheer size makes a National Basketball Association-style bubble environment logistically impossible.
The NFL’s relatively short season also leaves the league with less margin for rescheduling games if public health constraints become necessary.
As more options appear on Netflix and other streaming services, an incomplete NFL season could lead more customers to stop paying for traditional cable television packages — the phenomenon known as cord cutting.
“Without much sports, there’s no reason to pay for the [cable] bundle,” said Rich Greenfield, partner at LightShed. Any further stoppages are “just going to accelerate cord-cutting. It’s the huge risk nobody is talking about.”
It is precisely because of the fear of cord cutting that networks are expected to bid top dollar for NFL rights when existing contracts expire, beginning as soon as next season. Annual rights paid by the league’s broadcast partners could swell from $5.6bn under current terms to $8.8bn according to projections by MoffettNathanson.
Even if an outbreak of Covid-19 forces the cancellation or postponement of one or two games this season, networks are not likely to ask for proportionate refunds of their rights fees because of the looming contract negotiations, according to one person with knowledge of the matter. Keeping on good terms with the NFL remains paramount.
“I don’t think they are going to want to nickel and dime the NFL on rebates” with future rights contracts on the horizon, this person said.
The NFL declined to comment. The league’s existing broadcast partners — ESPN, Fox, CBS and NBC — also declined to comment.
Meanwhile, American sport is still grappling with its response to a powerful social justice movement and protests against police brutality.
In the wake of protests against the police killing of George Floyd this summer, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell issued an unprecedented apology to football players for “not listening” to athletes who peacefully demonstrated in the past.
Former quarterback Colin Kaepernick became a global icon in 2016 for “taking a knee” to protest police brutality during the pre-game NFL ritual of playing the US national anthem, a move which proved divisive and which some media executives concluded was a factor in declining television ratings that season.
The protests are “something [viewers] don’t find attractive or they [don’t] find . . . compelling in coverage of the football game”, CBS sports chairman Sean McManus told Sports Illustrated in 2017.
Recent studies show there is a distinct generational divide on support for social justice demonstrations in sports. More than half of US sports fans over the age of 35 find kneeling during the national anthem to be disrespectful, compared with just 34 per cent of those between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a survey released this month by entertainment agency Octagon.
The NFL is making some adaptations to its programming to acknowledge the cultural shift in the US, including playing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” — popularly known as the black national anthem — before each first-week game.
Broadcasters say they are prepared to cover the action, on and off the gridiron, as necessary.
“Our policy has been to cover the anthem when it’s newsworthy, and that’s not going to change,” said Stephanie Druley, executive vice-president of event and studio production at ESPN. “We will cover social justice movements, actions as they happen. We’re not going to shy away from that.”
The season officially began Thursday night with a game between the Kansas City Chiefs, the defending Super Bowl champions, and the Houston Texans, and the kick-off was anything but typical. When the two teams linked arms at midfield for a moment of silence for “the ongoing fight for equality” in the US, loud boos could be heard from the smattering of fans permitted in the stadium under social distancing guidelines.
In the announcing booth, Al Michaels asked fellow NBC broadcaster Chris Collinsworth for his predictions for the season.
“I’m just so happy that these guys are out here playing football,” Mr Collinsworth said. “I think America needed it. I think I need it.”