The National Football League played through the pandemic, and an exceedingly successful season was crowned on Sunday by Tom Brady’s Super Bowl performance for the ages in Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium.
The 43-year-old Brady prevailed over Patrick Mahomes in a battle of the quarterbacks, winning his seventh Super Bowl in his 10th appearance—both records—and leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to a 31-9 victory over the defending champion Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV. He was named MVP of the game for the fifth time, also extending his own record.
Many skeptics thought the game might never happen. In the end, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell called it “a season we will never forget.”
“This was an extraordinary collective effort [just to get here],” Goodell said this week during his annual Super Bowl press conference. “There’s so many people who had to work together to get this done. There were doubters, obviously. There were people who didn’t believe we could do it. We had a lot of unknowns ourselves….
“But we believed that staying on schedule and working to trying to get 256 games done, as we sort of say short-handed, ‘avoid the asterisk.’ We were able to do that. We’re finishing out strong.”
Brady completed 21 of 29 passes for 201 yards, no interceptions and three touchdowns, two of them to tight end Rob Gronkowski, his old New England Patriots teammate. Brady left New England last summer to sign a two-year, $50 million deal. The Patriots didn’t make the playoffs while Brady led the Bucs to their first Super Bowl title since 2003.
That was an underlying storyline, but the overriding theme of the season was battling through the coronavirus.
“How about that?” Brady said, holding the Lombardi Trophy a loft after the game. “I’m so proud of all these guys out here. We came together at the right time. I think we knew this was going to happen, didn’t we?”
Despite 262 players having tested positive from Aug. 1 to Jan. 30, there were no games canceled and very few even postponed, as the league played all of its contests without resorting to a bubble and allowing half of the league to travel every week.
By contrast, Major League Baseball had to postpone 47 games before going into three rounds of playoffs in soft bubbles. The National Basketball Association and National Hockey League, contending with a more day-to-day schedule, have had their own problems.
The NBA had to postpone 24 games since its season began Dec. 22, while the NHL delayed 26 games through Friday as five teams were benched because of COVID outbreaks in the past 10 days: Vegas, Buffalo, New Jersey, Minnesota and Colorado. They join Dallas and Carolina, who were shuttered temporarily early on because of COVID protocols.
The NFL, though, somehow skirted much of that, having only to deal with a high-profile postponement, a Thanksgiving Day game between Baltimore and Pittsburgh that was delayed three times when 22 Ravens players tested positive for COVID. The game was eventually played about a week after it was scheduled. Other teams had their schedules shuffled, particularly the Tennessee Titans when they had 13 players sidelined because of the coronavirus.
“Some have called the NFL completing its entire season on time a miracle,” said Marc Ganis, founder of Sportscorp and an adviser to the NFL. “That infers divine intervention of some sort. The reality is that it wasn’t a miracle. It was the result of extremely hard work, tremendous sacrifice by many and their families, many deferring their personal interests for the greater good, effective and bold leadership we rarely see these days and respect and appreciation for all….
“This was the greatest year in the history of the NFL,” he said. “Everyone involved deserves tremendous credit and will remember it for the rest of their lives.”
In a season that saw limited fan attendance—12 of the 32 teams played without any fans at all—there was relatively little revenue from ticket sales, concessions, parking or merchandise generated from professional football stadiums. The NFL was projected to lose $5.5 billion in gross revenue, mega-agent Leigh Steinberg told Sportico back in November.
Steinberg, who represents Mahomes, negotiated a 10-year, $503 million contract extension for the Chiefs star back in 2020 before the pandemic hit. Mahomes, who was the MVP of Kansas City’s win in Super Bowl 54, finished Sunday with 26 completions in 49 attempts for 270 yards, no TDs and two interceptions.
Despite all of that, the NFL’s sponsorship revenue was up 10% in 2020, up to $1.62 billion from $1.47 billion during 2019, according to IEG, the sponsorship authority. Two new stadiums—the Raiders’ Allegiant in Las Vegas, and SoFi for the Chargers and Rams in the Los Angeles area—accounted for a $55 million increase in new naming rights fees. The three teams, previously playing in older or makeshift stadiums, moved from the lower tier of revenue generators in the NFL into the top, although both new facilities were closed to fans.
Even though COVID protocols restricted the Super Bowl to just 22,000 fans on Sunday, the lowest in the game’s 55-year-history, the game and the season had to be considered a resounding success.
“I think that was the big thing for us,” Goodell said. “We had to adapt at every stage. Just like the media and everybody else in this society. This was a year when we were all challenged. We all had to adapt and we had to find innovative solutions to challenges. I couldn’t be prouder to be here.”