If there’s a season, the NFL’s premium seating will be reserved for advertisements

Charles Robinson
NFL columnist

In a plan that will be spelled out to team owners Thursday, the NFL is looking at an advertising audible that will allow franchises to recoup revenue by selling premium lower-bowl seating sections to a wider array of advertisers, according to Sports Business Journal and a handful of team executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports on Wednesday.

The sections will be those nearest to the field level — which are typically the priciest available — but are now rendered higher risk to players because of COVID-19 concerns.

That move and a Thursday virtual meeting between the league office and NFL team owners is the latest step toward a 2020 season. It’s a process that has been frustrating and incremental, according to a handful of NFL executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports this week.

Teams have been operating under the assumption that training camps are still expected to open in late July. With that being only five weeks away, the executives said some pressing questions have been left unanswered — including guidance on fan attendance.

Advertising on lower-bowl seating, such as this Bud Light ad at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in 2019, could help teams recoup lost ticket revenue this season. (Photo by John McCoy/Getty Images)

“The question about fans is going to end up being a choice left up to [teams] — actually, I should say pretty much all the questions on the fan attendance,” one frustrated AFC executive said this week. “We haven’t heard anything [from the league]. Hopefully that changes [Thursday], because we have a lot of questions.

“Right now, it’s pretty obvious that it’s going to go one of two ways: Either there’s a decision to say, ‘no fans anywhere’ or it’s, ‘go by whatever your [local and state] guidelines are and then you just figure it out. Do whatever you can safely.’ … I think we’re all going to be on our own. We’re all going to have to figure it out until the [league office] says otherwise. We already have a list of questions about ‘dos’ or ‘don’ts’ with fans that would make you go insane — and we have like two months to figure that out in a health situation that is changing every two weeks in some places.”

Some of those questions, according to a second AFC team official who spoke to Yahoo Sports, range from:

  • Do all fans have to be socially distanced at 6 feet apart?

  • If fans live together and arrive in a group, can those fans all sit together without social distancing?

  • If “clusters” of fans are allowed, do the clusters have to be 6 feet apart or does there need to be more distance?

  • Does everyone have to wear a mask into the stadium?

  • How will concourses, escalators and staircases operate while keeping fans socially distanced?

There are plenty of questions of whether or not fans will be able to attend NFL games this season, and what types of social distancing they may encounter. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

“As you can imagine, it’s going to be really hard to figure it all out for one game — just the seating chart alone,” the official said. “But then it all starts from scratch for the next game, too. All the unassigned seats have to be rearranged from scratch. You basically have to solve a complex problem 10 times without making mistakes. And there is still the curveball that could completely blow it up.

“What if we can be at 50 percent capacity in September and October and then the health outlook changes, and suddenly, we’re told we can only be at 25 percent in November? What do you even do in that situation, when suddenly half of the customers from that point on can’t come into the venue?”

The executive then added the kicker that was echoed in some form by others across the league.

“The simplest answer that would just take a huge burden off the table is to say that for this year, we can’t have fans in the stadium. That would solve a lot of questions and take something really complicated out of it. That’s the simple truth. But I don’t think that’s where we’re headed. Instead, it’s all just going to be probably the hardest job everyone has had maybe ever — whether you’re on business side or stadium operations or if you’re coaching the team and everything else in between.”

At least one of the major questions about seating has been about what can be done with the empty space in the stadium in the event of zero or partial capacity. That was answered in part earlier this week when teams were notified that prime “camera-friendly” seating real estate could be sold to an expanded array of advertisers.

With teams already certain they wouldn’t be filling the first several rows of the lower bowls, the league has opened the option of selling that space to advertisers inside and outside NFL’s typical sponsors. Depending on the creativity and demand, that space could help cushion what is expected to be a massive loss in ticket revenue.

The plan will be part of a lengthy presentation to teams owners on Thursday, while also refining a few other plans to open training camps. One major point of contention, according to the executives who spoke to Yahoo Sports, is how to get the union into greater lockstep with planning.

One team executive told Yahoo Sports that the union has already been at odds with the league over making statements about camps and health regulations that weren’t agreed upon by the NFLPA.

“The big part of this entire thing with the opening of training camp is what the union will even agree to,” one NFC executive said on Wednesday. “The opening is in their hands as much as it is in anyone else’s — and there have already been problems with what we’re assuming we can do.

“We can’t even get clarity on what the union has agreed to. A few weeks ago, we were preparing a message for email and texts inviting players to voluntarily return to the facility once the coaches got back in. A message like, ‘If you want to work out and be in the facility for whatever, you have that green light.’ But then all of the sudden we were told [by the league], ‘No, you can’t do that. That hasn’t been settled. It’s not the right time for that yet.’ The first thing we said [in our building] was like, ‘OK, whose job is it to get this on the same page? Because it’s not on the same page.’ At this rate, we could end up having that same conversation in a month.”

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