If the National Football League has its way, there will be fans in the stands for the 2021 season when things kick off this fall – at full capacity, according to NFL Commissioner Roger Goddell.
“All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,” Goddell told reporters after a series of virtual meetings with owners that took place in late March. “Football is simply not the same without fans, and we expect to have full stadiums in the upcoming season.”
With scarcely five months to go before the season begins in September, there are a number of factors that will weigh on that becoming a reality beyond the league and its ownership’s desires. Local authorities would have to sign off on any increase of capacity for mass gatherings such as NFL games. Currently, only two states – Texas and Florida – allow full venues for live outdoor events. But many others are loosening up restrictions as COVID vaccination efforts continue to ramp up across the United States. Even California and New York, which have seen some of the highest COVID rates since the virus ground live events to a halt in March of 2020, have begun allowing spectators at both indoor and outdoor events.
According to statistics on COVID vaccinations, approximately 18.7 percent of the United States population is fully vaccinated against COVID as of April 5. All told, 165 million doses have been distributed in the country, which accounts for almost 25 percent of the worldwide total of doses administered. And in many states, the full population has not yet become eligible to receive their shot, or only recently became eligible as higher-risk groups have taken the early priority in the rollout.
Attendance at NFL games varied across the country in the fall of 2020, as individual teams and local authorities decided if and at what capacity teams could host fans. The total attendance figure of approximately 1.2 million fans was a dip of more than 90 percent compared to 2019. And that was after the league saw its full alotment of tickets go on sale in the spring of 2020 in hopes that the fall would see a return to full attendance after the first wave of COVID cases swept through the nation and world at large.
The league has said it will not require players and other team personnel to be vaccinated, though it would be encouraging them to do so. More than 60 players opted out of participating in the 2020 season, which the league allowed without penalty. Numerous players saw positive tests and quarantine stretches during the season, including multiple scheduling scrambles around team-based outbreaks – totalling 22 games (just under 9 percent of the total regular season schedule). But the league successfully navigated the pandemic and saw a crowd of over 20,000 witness a first-ever homefield Super Bowl, as Tampa Bay captured the Lombardi Trophy on its own turf at Raymond James Stadium.
It is far too early to say whether or not the plans for full capacity crowds will come to fruition in 2021, but there is undoubtedly reason for optimism that the NFL and its teams will see a much higher percentage – even if not 100 percent – of fans in its seats this fall.