The president has vowed not to watch the NFL this season if players kneel – and they will be doing so in droves, I can assure you – but he will end up being in a distinct minority. If the NFL is able to start and complete a full season – and that is a particularly big if, in my opinion – then I anticipate ratings the likes of which we have never before seen.
This league could be positioned in a truly unique space to capture an even more monumental audience than ever before if it can pull off even a quasi-regular 2020 season. It stands primed to be perhaps the only major sports league in the world able to start sometime around when it normally would, and there could be a significant window this fall where every other league in this country – and the world for that matter – is on hiatus, with needed time off between when the completion of their 2019-2020 seasons end and before their 2020-2021 seasons begin.
Consider as well the growing concerns about being able to play anything close to normal fall collegiate sports schedules, with so many states in various stages of openness and normalcy regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, and the fact that schools like the University of Houston have already had to send all kids home from voluntary spring work, and the fact that the Alabama football program had a rash of positive tests when players gathered there. The potential for serious liability risks are particularly acute for these "amateur" sports that make big bucks.
What type of a waiver would you have to put before these young men to sign in order to get them on a football field – at a time when some campuses may be all virtual or certainly limited due to the virus – and how could you expect any of them to sign it without compensation? Sorry, the scholarship argument doesn't carry weight in the best of times, and it is a particular sham in an instance like this, with so much risk involved in gathering in large groups and playing and practicing a sport like football every day.
Even if major college football gets started, if the numbers mount, things will have to scrapped. These are kids we are talking about; not adult professionals. I believe it will take a Herculean effort to get through an NFL season … a college season may be pure folly.
As for baseball, insomuch as baseball was a threat to the NFL at all for eyeballs these days, well, the MLB is doing an excellent job of killing what remains of its fanbase. Its "negotiations" with the union have been a sordid mess from the onset, the worst-case scenario of a totally bastardized 48-game schedule played with games only between certain divisions now seems like a best case scenario, hopes of an expanded playoff field seem bleak and more owners are letting on privately that they'd rather not play at all. A fake MLB playoff up against huge NFL regular season games? Yeah, NFL ratings would be massive.
The NBA will be on pause for a good bit of the NFL season, and it remains to be seen how many of their starters sit out the tournament-style relaunch that the NBA and its union have agreed to. Will guys be going through the motions after a four-month shutdown? The prospect of moving to Orlando for a few months seems to be producing waning enthusiasm, for good reason.
As for other outlets – movie theaters are in dire shape, forget about any concerts or normal musicals and Broadway shows until 2021. Yes, it is an election year, and that tends to make a dent, but the NFL has become directly tied to the discourse of race and police brutality and the democratic process in this country, and it is fair to reason that if Roger Goodell is kneeling with players and if the NFL continues on the track it is on, that people who might otherwise ignore the league will now be incentivized to watch. Sure, some will stop … but even in 2016 and 2017 the NFL had ratings the other sports could only hope for, and clearly the country is moving in a different direction from then – in the streets and even on Wall Street, with corporate America increasingly embracing Black Lives Matter.
With a movement and activism in the air, some owner might finally get around to giving Colin Kaepernick a workout should a need emerge at quarterback – and in a league as punishing as this, it certainly will somewhere – and that would immediately be a huge international news story and media event. Even Kaepernick holding a clipboard on the sidelines would bring global attention to the league. And if Kaepernick actually got in a game? Forget about it. Maybe the highest rated regular season game in years.
Furthermore, I can't imagine there are fans in the stands this season (which also means you don't have to worry about protests at the stadium on game day if Kaepernick is signed) so all of those people will be watching games at home, and quite likely not just the game their team is participating in. With the other leagues on hiatus, think of how much more money will be gambled on football (not that it wasn't already king) and what the daily fantasy handles might be. Plus, with many not comfortable being in bar atmospheres or large gatherings, it's not a leap to think more people will be watching from home – which means more ratings.
Sure, the NFL revenues would be altered by the loss of ticket sales and game-day hauls from all those beers and hot dogs and jerseys from the team store, but from a TV ratings and revenue perspective, playing a full season might mean numbers the likes of which we haven't seen.
Of course, with 32 teams requiring over 50 players and a large support staff required in order for those players to practice and eat and work out and meet on a daily basis, I have my reservations about teams being able to travel and play a normal 16-game schedule. If this pandemic has taught us anything, it's that we still don't know enough about coronavirus and what it does and how and when and where it might spike again.
It may prove naïve and ambitious to think any of these sports can survive in 2020, much less prosper. But if the NFL is able to pull it off, I believe the world will be watching in ways we have not seen before. Even if the president stays away.