N.F.L. team owners and the players’ union, chastened by the spread of the coronavirus and mindful of other professional leagues’ struggles to return to play, are considering playing the 2020 regular season with few or no fans in attendance and are actively discussing how to absorb lost revenue potentially worth billions, according to three people briefed on the discussions who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not allowed to discuss the matter publicly.
The owners, who spoke by conference call as recently as Tuesday, are weighing with the union how to spread out the losses over several years by lowering the salary cap, which governs how much teams can spend on player salaries.
At the same time, the owners are exploring ways to increase revenue generated by each team, including expanding sponsorships and other local initiatives. Last week, the league approved a plan to let teams cover the seats closest to the field with a tarp adorned with a sponsor’s logo.
Some owners have been negotiating with the N.F.L. Players Association to determine how long to spread out the hit to the salary cap, though no formal proposals have been exchanged, the people briefed on the discussion said. Two people briefed on the talks said the owners hope to reach an agreement with the union by the end of the month, when training camps are scheduled to open.
Spokesmen for the N.F.L. and the players’ union declined to comment on the negotiations.
The team owners anticipate playing games this season, though the start of the season could be pushed back from Sept. 10, the scheduled date of the first regular-season game between the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs and the Houston Texans. The N.F.L. has already canceled the first preseason game of the year that would have been played in Canton, Ohio, and it awaits the players’ approval on a proposal to shorten the preseason from four games per team to two.
While league executives have said that teams will be able to admit fans to games in accordance with local and state rules, some teams are already preparing for games without any fans in attendance. The Jets and Chicago Bears are among the franchises that have already begun offering season ticket holders refunds for this year’s games. New York state guidelines for professional sports competitions currently prohibit fans at any venue, a regulation that could limit Buffalo Bills home games.
The discussions about recovering lost revenue, though, are a sign that the owners recognize that as the number of coronavirus infections surges across the country, the N.F.L., like nearly every other sports league, may have to play games with no fans in attendance. A recent spike in infections from the coronavirus in states like Arizona, Florida and Texas — all home to N.F.L. teams — has forced owners to more urgently discuss contingency plans.
Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said last month that the N.F.L. must isolate players, coaches and team staff members in an enclosed community to safely play the 2020 season amid the pandemic.
The N.F.L., which generates about three-quarters of its $15 billion in annual revenue from the sale of national broadcast rights, sponsorships and merchandise, is far less reliant on ticket sales and local revenue than other professional sports leagues.
Still, the league stands to lose between $2 billion and $4 billion in revenue this season if fans are not on hand to buy tickets, luxury suites, food, merchandise and parking passes. The owners expect the players, who receive about 48 percent of league revenue, to absorb a proportional amount of those losses. Usually, the salary cap is reset each February based on expectations for revenue for the coming season.
If local prohibitions against large gatherings are upheld, the lack of fans could be especially hard on the Rams and Chargers in Los Angeles, and the Raiders in Las Vegas, which are opening new stadiums this season. The Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and other teams that routinely play in front of big crowds would also be disproportionately hurt, even if local regulations allow them to admit some fans.
The dilemma the league and union face is how quickly to claw back those losses. If the salary cap is dramatically cut next season to recoup losses quickly, free agents could be hurt because teams would have far less money to spend. If the league and union lower the salary cap over a series of years to spread out the losses, a future generation of players will end up sharing the burden.
While the pandemic forced Major League Baseball, the N.B.A. and other leagues to cut their seasons significantly, the N.F.L. has been able to operate its off-season largely as scheduled, albeit virtually. Free agency, the draft and voluntary team workouts have been held on time. The league and union approved safety protocols that have allowed coaches and front office staff to return to team facilities.
But the N.F.L. and union have still not agreed upon the testing and quarantine guidelines for the thousands of players that are supposed to start training camp at the end of July.
In an open letter to players sent on June 30, J.C. Tretter, the union’s president, said that the players should not let management dictate the terms of when and how they return to training camp.
“For both rookies who are eager to make an impression and veterans who are hungry to come back, we have to be patient with the process so that we can make sure you and your families receive every necessary protection,” Tretter wrote. “Professional athletes in every sport have to regularly fend off criticism that our profession should be considered less of a job and that we shouldn’t fight for protections and benefits.”
Tretter said players should resist arguments that undermine their worth and force players to take on undue risk.
“More so than any other sport, the game of football is the perfect storm for virus transmission,” he said. “There are protections, both short and long term, that must be agreed upon before we can safely return to work.”