“It’s like Edmund Hillary getting to the top of Everest and not being able to tell anybody,” he said.
The buzz-less stadiums have become one of the defining features of the league’s 2020 campaign, along with hundreds of positive coronavirus tests among players, coaches and staff members that forced games to be rescheduled, including one that was ultimately played on a Wednesday afternoon. Thirteen teams had no fans in attendance this season, and several other teams had fans at just a few games before health authorities banned large gatherings as the number of virus cases spiked this winter.
The league drew a combined 1.2 million fans this year, less than 10 percent of last season’s number. The league’s 32 teams this season lost roughly $4 billion in sales of tickets, luxury boxes, food, parking and sponsorships. Even television viewership, the lifeblood of the league, fell 7 percent during the regular season, the first decline since 2017, when a substantial number of players knelt during the playing of the national anthem to protest racial and social injustice.
The Super Bowl will be muted, too. To limit potential exposure to the virus, the teams will arrive only a day or two before the game. Many of the league’s biggest sponsors, who often host hundreds of their most important clients at the Super Bowl, will not travel to Tampa, Fla., for festivities before the game. The N.F.L. might fill just 20 percent of the seats at Raymond James Stadium, including vaccinated emergency medical workers invited by the league.
Still, some fans will get a chance to see their teams play in person for the first time this season. The Bills had about 6,000 fans this weekend, and the Packers said they would host about the same number of fans at their first home game, in the divisional round next weekend. The Tennessee Titans will have about 14,500 fans, or 21 percent of their capacity, at their home game; that number is in line with the attendance at many of their regular season games.
In the future, though, when fans look back at pictures of this year’s playoff games, the empty seats are sure to stand out as much as, if not more than, the plays.