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NFL Moves Ahead With Plans for Full 2020 Season, Despite Pandemic

Eagles Panthers Thursday Night Football
Jacob Kupferman/CSM/REX/Shutters

The entire nation is ready for some football. Whether or not the game can really be played is still unknown.

The NFL threw a long pass Thursday night, detailing the ins and outs of its 2020-2021 season across four different networks even though the ability of its teams to field games in normal fashion in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic remains in question.

CBS, NBC, Fox and ESPN each touted a full gridiron schedule Thursday night, exuding confidence that the biggest pieces of content  in their programming lineups would take place as planned. CBS said its Sunday AFC games would feature quarterbacks like Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson, and it spotlighted its exclusive coverage of Super Bowl LV from Tampa, Fla., in 2021. Fox expects an aggressive slate of “Thursday Night Football” games as well as plenty of Dallas Cowboys coverage on Sundays. ESPN said its pigskin roster would feature two games with new Tampa Bay player Tom Brady. NBC said it would televise the first game of the season on Thursday, Sept. 10.

“It’s not about predicting. It’s more about preparing,” says Michael Mulvihill, executive vice president and head of strategy and analytics for Fox Sports.

“Nobody has great clarity into where we may be going., All we can do is prepare for every possible outcome,” he adds. “The league is pretty clear they are interested in playing a 16-game season, If that’s going to happen. we need to start preparing.”

Live sports have been scuttled for weeks, with the NBA and NHL suspending their current season and Major League Baseball delaying its opening day. In recent days, there have been signs of hope, with the PGA Tour detailing plans to bring games back in June with appropriate social distancing. The appetite for such stuff is immense. ESPN recently sold out all the commercial time for its coverage of the NFL Draft and WarnerMedia on Thursday said it had sold out all the ad inventory for its May 24 broadcast of a celebrity golf match between Tiger Woods, Tom Brady, Phil Mickelson and Peyton Manning.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has made clear to teams they must work within the guidelines of the cities and states in which they play, and he has called for each team to have a group dedicated to rapid response to coronavirus infection and containment.

NFL games are the linchpin of the modern TV business, with the nation’s biggest media companies — ViacomCBS, Walt Disney Co., Fox Corporation and Comcast — heavily reliant on franchises like ESPN’s “Monday Night Football” or NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” and the millions of viewers they snare each season. Football games account for TV’s biggest ratings, largest audiences, and highest regular-season ad costs. The network showing the Super Bowl each year — the big game rotates among NBC, Fox and CBS — is guaranteed having a robust stream of ad revenue in the first fiscal quarter of the year.

There are signs the NFL may have too much ambition. The NBA and NHL have yet to announce how they will complete their year, and Major League Baseball has yet to unveil when its season will open  And there are many other questions, such as how many fans — if any — will be able to go to stadiums to watch the games live.

The networks expressed excitement at the prospect of having live sports back on TV again. Fans have often derided the quality of matches in “Thursday Night Football,” but Fox Sports’ Mulvihill said this year’s lineup of teams was “the most aggressive schedule of ‘Thursday Night Football’ ever.” He also expressed confidence that Fox’s Sunday-afternoon games will have broad appeal, with the first half of the season featuring young quarterbacks on the rise and the entire run including several games featuring the Dallas Cowboys.