How the NFL And Sports Can Help Us Get Back to Normal

As COVID-19 (hopefully) inches toward our rearview mirrors, America and the world are navigating how best to safely reopen and replenish economies. While the NFL can’t alone wave a magic wand and teleport us to “normal,” the league did drop an interesting nugget in its plans for the NFL Draft press release this week about a model that has the potential for a big impact. 

This week the league announced that the NFL Draft will indeed move forward in Cleveland with actual humans in attendance. There will be select prospects and media and even some fans on site. Masks and social distancing required. This is hardly surprising given the loosened restrictions on events throughout the country – even New York is allowing 10% capacity at large venues. But the differentiator between the NFL Draft and most other sporting events, or any events really, is that the league is going to have a special section reserved for fans who are fully vaccinated. And that special section, which the NFL is calling its “inner circle” happens to be the best seat in the house: the closest section to the stage where Roger Goodell will announce the selections. The NFL is still finalizing plans but a league spokeswoman says that this special section will have about 12 fully vaccinated fans per club. 

Rendering of NFL Draft seating. Sections closest to stage to hold vaccinated fans. (Photo: NFL)

The spectrum of views on Covid and what is or isn’t safe continue to be endless and polarizing. I live in a town in California where, even though over 50% of residents are partially vaccinated, schools just reopened on a very part-time basis and if you’re maskless and within 20 feet of someone you’ll likely garner a dirty look. In other states, schools and sports, and restaurants have tried to survive the past year without missing a beat. Unfortunately for most, COVID had other ideas. COVID has been cruel and isolating. It needs to end. Despite all the societal and political differences that have prevailed during Covid, there’s one truth we should all coalesce around.  The clear ticket to putting the pandemic behind us is for everyone is get vaccinated.

The NFL Draft will be the second major event in which the league has created an elite category for the vaccinated. 7500 vaccinated health care workers were gifted free tickets to February’s Super Bowl in Tampa. That gracious display was probably more rooted in honoring the heroes that have worked in the throes of COVID than encouraging vaccinations. But the seeds for tiering were planted.

Israel has been the unequivocal world leader when it comes to vaccinating its population.  Over 60% of Israelis have received at least one shot. Compare that to the United States where 25.7% of the population has received the first shot. Not only is Israel closer to herd immunity they are also producing crucial data in terms of vaccine efficacy rates. 

But even in Israel there are those skeptical of the vaccine. To help entice them, especially the younger sect, the government last month introduced a green card where vaccinated residents can download an app and scan a bar code for entry into restaurants gyms, bands and other indoor spaces not yet proven safe for the unvaccinated. It’s essentially a ticket to pre-pandemic life. Or at least the closest thing the world can safely offer at this point.

The U.S. has a much deeper group resistant to receiving the vaccine, thanks to the politicization of COVID in this country. In an early March NPR/PBS/Marist poll,49% of Republican men said they would not receive the vaccine if made available. And the vaccine will be made available to every American by the end of May, according to President Biden.

While a sizable chunk of the NFL’s fan base are Republican men – 31% according to a recent Morning Consult poll – the league itself can’t rectify the vaccine skeptics. But in the name of public health and incentivization, the NFL can and should continue with a broader tiered system. The vaccinated folks get better access to seats with less distancing, something that mimics the pre-pandemic fan experience. 

Unvaccinated folks can still attend games but they will have to do so under stricter rules, and from a more distant vantage point, which will make the experience less fun. If the unvaccinated fans yearn for a better experience and see it dangled in front of them, well, sign up for the vaccine. We’re already inching toward supply exceeding demand making it plausible that mobile vaccine units can be placed in front of stadiums, arenas, and ball parks in the very near future. Imagine if clubs across all sports did this, especially baseball teams where there is such a frequent number of games (and the male Republican fan base exceeds the NFL). Beyond the stadium experience, teams and leagues can produce PSAs with their athletes talking about the importance of vaccinations. They can create discounts on apparel for the fully vaccinated. They can offer free Bobblehead dolls for anyone who gets a shot.  The possibilities for altruism with a little monetization on the side are endless. Heck, the NFL already got Subway to sponsor its inner circle of vaccinated fans! 

The Miami Heat are on board with the notion of tiering. They just announced that only fully vaccinated fans (meaning fans who can prove they received their second shot at least 14 days ago) will be eligible to sit in the lower bowls of American Airlines Arena. The Preakness in Baltimore will offer a less disparate but still useful version of a tiered system with vaccinated fans receiving expedited admissions. The sentiment extends beyond sports. Singer/songwriter Brandi Carlisle announced that select fully vaccinated fans would be eligible to attend her anticipated virtual concert this weekend. 

Other options to ensure safer events beyond masks and distancing have been floated. One of the most prevalent, a negative PCR test, might be effective at minimizing COVID spread on an event-by-event basis. But who knows what that person is doing or who they will cluster with in the future?  Let the bigger picture be the focus and get the skeptics vaccinated. With mass incentivizing and tiering, the NFL and entertainment as a whole might change a few minds.