Unlike the other major sports leagues, the NFL isn’t facing the decision of whether to postpone games amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
But coronavirus could have a major impact on a vitally important period of the NFL offseason.
According to reports Thursday from The Washington Post’s Mark Maske and others, the league is “considering contingencies” for the several tentpole events set to take place within the next two months, including the annual league meeting, the 2020 NFL Draft and free agency.
The NFL is considering contingencies regarding the NFL draft and other upcoming events on its schedule (the annual league meeting, possibly even free agency), a source said. League leaders are "discussing all matters. Stay tuned," the source said.
— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) March 12, 2020
What will the NFL do? The annual league meeting could be curtailed or canceled. The NFL draft could be made a TV-only event. Free agency could be postponed. But no clarity yet. Source just says league leaders are "discussing all matters. Stay tuned."
— MarkMaske (@MarkMaske) March 12, 2020
The draft, which is scheduled to be held in Las Vegas from April 23 to 25, is the most visible event on that list and also the most troublesome from a spectator standpoint. The event annually attracts hundreds of thousands of fans, with a record 600,000 flocking to Nashville, Tenn., for the 2019 edition.
Several cities and states recently have taken steps to ban or discourage large gatherings, and the NCAA currently plans to play its Division I basketball tournament in empty stadiums.
“I’d be planning for the contingency to conduct the draft at the NFL Network studio or the NFL offices,” Frank Supovitz, a former head of NFL events, told The Athletic this week. “The draft is, at its core, is an essential business meeting to select college-level players. Although it would be a disappointment to the thousands of fans planning to attend the festivities in Las Vegas, as a purely operational matter, it can definitely be conducted without fans. By doing it at the NFL Network, it can still be a media event. Or, it can be done at the office on Park Avenue and the results can be announced on television, or announced by the commissioner by a remote camera.”
COVID-19 also could alter the NFL’s extensive pre-draft process, which involves team personnel (coaches, scouts, etc.) zig-zagging across the country to attend pro days and on-campus workouts, and prospects traveling to team facilities for top-30 visits. Multiple teams already have made changes, with the Pittsburgh Steelers limiting commercial air travel for their coaches and scouts and the Philadelphia Eagles pulling its coaches off the road. (UPDATE: The Washington Redskins, too.)
Similar concerns exist on the players’ side. NFL agent Mike McCartney tweeted Thursday that he’s advising his clients not to visit with teams ahead of the draft.
As an agent, it's my strong recommendation that my players don't travel for any team visits. With 12 or more games played, an All-Star game and Combine for most, teams have enough information to make an informed draft decision.
— Mike McCartney (@MikeMcCartney7) March 12, 2020
Many NFL players also are scheduled to return to work within the next month. The five teams with new head coaches (New York Giants, Carolina Panthers, Redskins, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys) can begin their offseason workout programs April 6; the rest are eligible to do so on April 20.
The first order of business, though, is free agency, which is set to open next Wednesday, March 18 at 4 p.m. ET, with the league’s legal tampering period beginning Monday at noon ET. The NFL doesn’t need to worry about crowds of fans during this process, but it does involve players flying to multiple cities and visiting other team headquarters.
The NFLPA announced Thursday it was closing its office indefinitely. Now, multiple teams reportedly are considering doing the same with their facilities to prevent the spread of the virus.
If NFL teams in fact shut down their training facilities, as many are now discussing, then it would be challenging at best to start the new league year next week, when buildings are closed and more pressing issues face their communities and this country. https://t.co/ReXxk5CZdH
— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) March 12, 2020
The NBA suspended its season Wednesday night after Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert tested positive for coronavirus. The following morning, the NHL canceled all morning skates and team meetings scheduled for Thursday. Then came a report from Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl that Major League Soccer was suspending its season, as well.
Thus far, the NFL has announced just one minor postponement, pushing back a Hall of Fame Fan Fest that was scheduled for March 21 and 22. But at this point, it seems inevitable that more events will be affected.