Bills’ fans get double dose of Covid-19 reality

Los Angeles Chargers running back Melvin Gordon III celebrates in front of unhappy Buffalo Bills fans after scoring on a second quarter touchdown pass from Philip Rivers during a 2018 game at New Era Field in Orchard Park, N.Y. As Chuck Pollock writes in his column, the home-field advantage for the Bills — and likely all NFL teams — will be gone for 2020.

 

If Bills fans believed Commissioner Roger Goodell’s contention that the National Football League would be “business as usual” this coming season, they got slapped with a megadose of reality over the past 72 hours.

First, the State of New York announced its Phase 4 coronavirus guidelines and mandated that no fans will be allowed inside a sports venue and, further, there will be no congregating outside such facilities at least until the pandemic abates. In other words, Bills games at New Era Field will be held with empty stands AND no tailgating will be allowed. The University at Buffalo home football schedule is similarly affected.

It remains to be seen how many other states will enact those guidelines.

Then, Wednesday, it was revealed that the NFL will cancel two of each team’s four preseason games, Weeks 1 and 4, though that won’t be official until next week.

IN SHORT, this pro football season looms as much different than Goodell’s wishful thinking might have portrayed.

Start with the fact that some states are the polar opposite of New York, indifferent about masks, social distancing and mass gatherings. It’s not hard to imagine some NFL games being played before sellout crowds, or at least half-full stadiums, and others, such as in Orchard Park, being completely empty.

And that reality alone creates the unintended consequence of a competitive disparity. The betting standard is that an NFL home field grants between a two- and three-point advantage. Last season, four teams were given a 4-point edge: Green Bay, New England, Oakland and Miami (almost entirely due to weather). The smallest advantage at home — 1.5 points — was shared by five teams: Cincinnati, Detroit, L.A. Rams, N.Y. Giants and Washington. Buffalo was smack in the middle at 2.5.

No matter, games played in stadiums sans fans benefit visiting teams on the field AND doubly hurt the home franchise via lost ticket, parking and concession revenue.

It will be interesting to see how many Bills season-ticket holders exercise the “opt-out for 2020” option.

BY CONTRAST, halving the NFL’s preseason looms as long-term good news pending the Players’ Association signing off on it. But even that isn’t all bad as the players are questioning playing ANY exhibition (read: meaningless) games in the face of Covid-19.

The NFL’s guidelines for this year’s preseason have an amusing and ironic effect on the Bills.

If the suggested format is followed, Buffalo would lose its opener (Friday, Aug. 14 at Baltimore) as the league wants to provide more time for training camp, which can start July 28. Also scrapped would be the Bills’ finale (Thursday, Sept. 3 at Detroit) to lengthen preparation time before the regular-season opener.

Thus, Buffalo’s two exhibition games would be at New Era Field (Friday night, Aug. 21, versus the Falcons and Saturday afternoon, Aug. 29, against Indianapolis), both without fans, fans, though that’s likely to change as the NFL wants each team to have a home and road preseason game.

IT’S interesting that the players, for years, have lobbied for only two preseason games, a cockroach in the punch bowl for the owners who charge regular-season prices for those games while paying training camp salaries … a windfall produced by minimum expenditure.

But the reality is, it’s long been accepted that two exhibitions is plenty. As it is now, starters play only one or two series in the preseason opener and not at all in the finale.

Still, owners are reluctant to give up ANY preseason games after already relinquishing two, which happened in 1978 when the league went to a 16-game regular season, dropping the exhibition campaign from six games to four.

That change ended the league’s huge embarrassment that began with the AFL-NFL merger in 1970 through 1977 and the Bills lived it in 1974, my second season covering the team.

Buffalo and St. Louis were picked to play in that year’s Hall of Fame Game at Canton, Ohio. That meant the Bills and Cardinals ended up playing SEVEN exhibition games BEFORE only a 14-game regular-season schedule.

(Chuck Pollock, a Bradford Publishing senior sports columnist, can be reached at cpollock@oleantimesherald.com)

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