Imagine, NFL games with no fans? Don’t rule it out

Colts

The Indianapolis Colts and Carolina Panthers play in the second quarter of the game at Lucas Oil Stadium on December 22, 2019 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Bobby Ellis/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS – There’s every chance the NFL will put one of those philosophical theories to the test in the fall.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

Yeah, that one.

To the point: If T.Y. Hilton catches a 60-yard touchdown pass from Philip Rivers and follows it by raising his hands in his patented T-Y T-Y  T-Y celebration, does it resonate if he’s staring at 60,000 empty seats at Lucas Oil Stadium?

Or if Justin Houston bursts around the edge and smothers Aaron Rodgers, will the silence be deafening and the only reaction consist of him being group-hugged by his teammates?

The NFL is plowing ahead despite the uncertainty created by the COVID-19 pandemic. Facilities that have been closed since mid-March are slowly opening across the country to no more than half-capacity or a maximum of 75 employees. Soon, coaches might be allowed to return, followed by players.

Yahoo Sports, citing unnamed sources, reported the league is considering a scenario that allows for voluntary, full-squad minicamps in mid-to-late June. That could be the precursor for normal training camps in late July and the four-game preseason.

Next? The 256-game regular season, set to open Sept. 10.

Everything, of course, is subject to the continuing pandemic and the state and local health concerns. The NFL has operated on the premise that as long as one team is restricted by its state/local guidelines, no team is allowed to meet at its facility, let alone practice.

However, if everything falls into place, it’s conceivable the NFL is back in business in September (OK, August if the preseason isn’t altered).

And it’s entirely conceivable that business will take place without fans in the stands, at least at first. As we sit here today, it’s hard to imagine a city, a franchise or the NFL being the least bit comfortable with 60,000 fans – or more – crammed into a stadium and spreading droplets at the top of their voices. Even some type of limited capacity seems farfetched.

This is a decision that must be made at the highest level of the NFL’s New York offices in conjunction with health officials.

One of the league’s dominant figures isn’t a fan of the no-fan possibility.

“You need fans to play a game,’’ said All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald. “I don’t see how you could play a game without no fans. I feel like that takes out the excitement and the fun out of the game.

“I feel like the fans is what pick you up. The fans will give you that extra juice when you’re tired and fatigued, when you make that big play and you hear 80,000 fans going crazy.’’

And this.

“You practice, and practice is practice,’’ Donald added. “And then you prepare to play a game and be on a big stage and pay in front of a crowd. Just no excitement (without fans). It wouldn’t be fun to me.’’

No fans would result in a massive financial hit to the league. Forbes reported the NFL could lose $5.5 billion in stadium revenue (tickets, concessions, parking, team stores, etc.) if the entire season was played without fans. The report was based on 2018 figures and noted the Indianapolis Colts could lose $112 million, or about 30% of their total revenue.

For his part, Frank Reich is preparing the Colts for what needs to be a bounce-back season by maximizing Zoom and virtual meetings and workouts. He’s taking the approach there will be a training camp, a preseason and a Sept. 13 season opener at Jacksonville.

Reich has at least briefly considered the possibility of playing games in empty stadiums.

“Chris (Ballard) and I have talked about it to some degree,’’ he said. “As coaches, we’ve talked about what that would look like . . . it will be odd that first time.’’

The NFL is equal parts execution and emotion. Players feed off the roar of the crowd. If that undeniable motivation is missing, everyone must adjust.

Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly noticed NASCAR resumed racing without fans.

“They still went out there and did their job,’’ he said. “If that’s what it comes down to, if that’s what it takes, that’s what we’re going to do.

“It’s crazy. As loud as the stadium gets sometimes, it doesn’t even affect you. You’re so focused on your job. If there are fans there, love them. I love playing at Lucas Oil. It’s an incredible atmosphere. If they’re not there, I know they’re going to be watching us on the field. Either way, we’re going to be rolling.’’

Added linebacker Anthony Walker: “I think guys will go out there and do it with no problem. I’m not saying it would be the same. Obviously, you love the fans, you love having that type of energy (at Lucas Oil). So you love to have those fans there, especially in Indy with the great fans that we have.

“That is always an advantage for us.’’

Part of Reich’s approach during the virtual offseason has been requiring players to visualize certain situations. That’s included having Kelly and quarterback Philip Rivers simulate being in a huddle and working on the cadence and communication.

And it will include having players visualize playing in an empty stadium if that becomes a reality.

“I would probably go through an exercise where I’ve got guys trying to visualize what that looks like,’’ Reich said. “So you get rid of the awkwardness the first time you go in and you are looking around like, ‘Man, this is strange.’ So try to do something to alleviate that.’’

Who knows? Perhaps teams would be allowed to pipe in some crowd noise.

“We are thinking about those things,’’ Reich said. “We will be ready to adapt and adjust.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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