By Not Placing a League-Wide Ban on Fans, the NFL is Putting Responsible Teams Like the Minnesota Vikings at a Disadvantage

Photo credit: Harrison Barden (USA TODAY Sports)

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Vikings joined a long list of teams that have announced they will begin the 2020 NFL season by playing their home games without fans in attendance. Officially, the team has announced that scheduled games for Sept. 13 (Week 1 against the Green Bay Packers) and Sept. 27 (Week 3 against the Tennessee Titans) will be played in an empty U.S. Bank Stadium.

The announcement is not a surprising one, as preserving the health and safety of everyone involved remains paramount, but it is an impactful one on the field. Arguably the two most challenging home games on Minnesota’s slate are the two games referred to in the announcement. Green Bay and Tennessee both earned berths in a conference championship game last season.

It’s no secret that U.S. Bank Stadium has one of the strongest home-field advantages in the NFL. Minnesota is 23-9 at U.S. Bank Stadium since the venue opened in 2016, which is nearly a 72 percent win rate. But unlike the Kansas City Chiefs, for example, who are allowing 22 percent capacity at their usually raucous stadium, the Vikings are passing on a potential home-field advantage.

“It looks like we’re not going to have any fans there early,” head coach Mike Zimmer said to the media before practice on August 21, “which really stinks because we have such unbelievable fans, and they make that place rocking every Sunday.”

This announcement doesn’t just take away Minnesota’s home-field advantage, though, which is significant in its own right. It may also result in a disadvantage. Some teams have announced they will be allowing fans into stadiums at a limited capacity to begin the season, while others have not made an official decision yet.

The possibility of the Packers allowing fans into Lambeau Field when the Vikings are in town, seven weeks after the Vikings were forced to host Green Bay without fans, just became a whole lot more likely.

Is this a huge deal? Perhaps not. Perhaps the Vikings will win both games against the Packers and it will be a moot point. But the general rule of thumb is that the Vegas spread swings by three points toward the home team. That seems significant, considering how close seemingly every Vikings-Packers matchup is.

If the NFL really wanted to create a fair competition in 2020 (and truly promote healthy and safety for its fans), it would implement a league-wide policy on fan attendance. At this point in time, given that so many state governments are maintaining restrictions on social gatherings, the decision the NFL should make is to play all NFL games without fans until further notice.

Of course, the NFL won’t do this. Even 10,000 to 20,000 people in an NFL stadium can generate millions of dollars in revenue, and the NFL likes its money. It would be a shocking turn of events to see the NFL even consider this.

But it is noteworthy that while so many people want politics to be kept out of sports, state governments are directly impacting the beginning of the 2020 NFL season, and perhaps the entire thing. The Star Tribune reported last week that the Vikings were working with Governor Tim Walz and other officials in hopes of allowing roughly 12,000 fans into the stadium. Clearly, that motion was denied.

It’s easy to identify the trend after a quick scan of which teams will have fans in the stadiums to begin the season and which won’t. Teams located in more conservatively-governed states will benefit from fan attendance, while teams in more liberally-governed states will be at a disadvantage, at least to start.

There has been some rumors suggesting that the NFL may allow crowd noise to be pumped into stadiums, which would, in theory, level the playing field. Zimmer told the media last Friday that the league would permit 80-90 decibels of noise, which is much lower than a packed U.S. Bank Stadium would generate.

Would the teams that allow fans in the stadiums be allowed to pump in the same noise? Would roughly 20,000 fans on top of 80-90 decibels of sound make a significant difference? These questions will likely be answered in short order.

The 2020 season will certainly be unique for many reasons, and the teams that adapt the best will be in the best position to succeed. Unfortunately for many teams, including the Vikings, the battle against a home-field disadvantage is just another obstacle to overcome.

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