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NFL needs to create a bubble plan for 2020 season

The NFL has a limited amount of time to learn from MLB’s struggles along with the NBA and NHL’s successes in the era of COVID-19.

US-HEALTH-VIRUS Photo by APU GOMES/AFP via Getty Images

The strange, ongoing experiment of professional sports in the year of COVID-19 is giving the public quite a bit of real-time data on what is working and what isn't working. Player safety is, and should be, on the forefront of everyone’s minds at the moment, and the alarming COVID outbreak in MLB’s Miami Marlins organization just three-games into their season serves as a stark reminder that navigating this time of uncertainty may be the most complicated undertaking we have witnessed in sports.

The NBA and NHL have gone with respective one and two “bubble” site approaches for their playoffs while MLB has forsaken the bubble approach for their condensed regular season. Right from the outset, it appears Major League Baseball has chosen poorly in rejecting the bubble. The National Football League is up against the clock if they decide to avoid baseball’s failings. The problem is, unlike basketball and hockey, football needs a much larger physical footprint to play their games and maintenance is a massive factor. The Disney World or two arena approach just won't cut it.

Sure, you could play an NFL game on any regulation football field in the country if you had to. The field dimensions are the same, the goalposts are the same width and height, but just because you could doesn't mean you should. The game remains the same as long as the dimensions lineup, but there is far more that goes into an NFL game, the television product, access to broadcast-ready stadium facilities, the need for in-stadium medical facilities, and facilities that provides the optics that the NFL remains “The Greatest Show on Turf”. Simply put, you're not going to get any of that playing “just anywhere”.

The easy answer is to stay put and play the season as you would any other year, traveling across the nation staying in different hotels week after week, just like baseball is attempting to do, but look where that course of action has gotten the MLB, with franchises missing games and their season on the brink, less than two weeks in. The NFL can move along with their set-in-stone schedule and itinerary as planned but the cost could be incredibly severe.

The NBA (despite rogue player activity) has regularly tested COVID-free in their bubble in Orlando and the NHL has been equally successful in their two Canadian bubbles in Edmonton and Toronto. Bubble play versus consistent travel across the nation has seen the advantage go to the bubble scenario so far. So if the NFL were to go with the bubble scenario themselves, where in America could you find the amount of facilities necessary to pull it off? Four bubbles? Two states? Who has the stadiums? Florida? Texas? Wouldn’t the state to state travel defeat the entire purpose? Well, I propose a one-state, two-bubble scenario that could have the potential to work. Where, you say? Go West... California.

California is the logical landing point for this scenario considering it has the clearest advantages in geography, logistics, and infrastructure needed to house, transport, and host NFL teams, league officials, and television network personnel. While the same effect could be had if you chose other regions with similar facilities, it would be far, far more spread out and would involve states that neighbor each other, states with differing approaches to COVID, different rules, different regulations, this would be avoided with the one-state approach.

The league would need to be split into two bubble sites with the AFC teams in one site and the NFC teams in the other:

National Football Conference

South Bubble - Southern California/Los Angeles region

NFC South - Saints, Falcons, Panthers, Buccaneers

NFC East - Eagles, Cowboys, Giants, Washington F.T.

NFC North - Vikings, Packers, Bears, Lions

NFC West - 49ers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Rams

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American Football Conference

North Bubble - Northern California/Bay Area region

AFC West - Chiefs, Chargers, Broncos, Raiders

AFC South - Colts, Titans, Texans, Jaguars

AFC East - Patriots, Bills, Dolphins, Jets

AFC North - Ravens, Steelers, Bengals, Browns

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The sites for these teams and the games they will play would be as follows:

South Bubble - Southern California/Los Angeles region

Site 1 - SoFi Stadium - Inglewood - Home of the Los Angeles Rams & Los Angeles Chargers

Los Angeles Rams SoFi Stadium Tour Photo by Scott Varley/MediaNews Group/Torrance Daily Breeze via Getty Images

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Site 2 - Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum - Exposition Park - Former Home of the Rams, current Home of the USC Trojans

LA County Continues Reopening Economy Despite Rise In Coronavirus Cases Photo by David McNew/Getty Images

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Site 3 - Rose Bowl - Pasadena - Home of the UCLA Bruins

Rose Bowl Game presented by Northwestern Mutual - USC v Penn State Photo by Tournament of Roses - Pool/Getty Images

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Site 4 - Dignity Health Sports Park - Carson - Former Home of the Chargers

NFL: DEC 22 Raiders at Chargers Photo by Kiyoshi Mio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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North Bubble - Northern California/Bay Area region

Site 1 - Levi’s Stadium - Santa Clara - Home of the San Francisco 49ers

NFL: OCT 07 Browns at 49ers Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Site 2 - Oakland/Alameda County Coliseum - Former Home of the Las Vegas Raiders

NFL: DEC 24 Broncos at Raiders Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

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Site 3 - Stanford Stadium - Palo Alto - Home of the Stanford Cardinal

Notre Dame v Stanford Photo by David Madison/Getty Images

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Site 4 - California Memorial Stadium - Berkeley - Home of the California Golden Bears

UC Berkeley To Begin Fall Semester With Online-Only Courses Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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With the lone exception of Cal’s stadium in Berkeley, every stadium on this list is either a current NFL stadium, former NFL stadium, or has hosted a Super Bowl. No other state can provide this amount of NFL-ready infrastructure in such close proximity, allowing for each “region” to have a central, insular hub.

Of course, stadium capacity is completely irrelevant in this scenario as games would be played without fans in attendance, similar to the MLB, NBA, and NHL models, but the ability to hold these games in stadiums that regularly host nationally televised NFL and PAC-12 football games would be a massive advantage to the league, the networks, and the players on those fields.

The vast number of unused NFL, university, city college, and high school football facilities in the NorCal and SoCal regions would more than fill the requirements needed by NFL franchises. Finding resorts that could house NFL teams and personnel in the Los Angeles and Bay Areas during this time would not seem to be much of an issue. Frankly, it would be surprising if a great number of resorts wouldn't be tripping over themselves to grab the lifeline of NFL revenue during this time.

It is reasonable to believe both regions could have an alternate site be converted should the need arise. The North region could convert MLS’ Earthquakes Stadium in San Jose much like what was done in Carson for the Chargers following their move from San Diego, while the South region could convert the MLS’ Banc of California Stadium which sits adjacent to the LA Memorial Coliseum in Exposition Park. Money would most certainly have to talk to get any of the stadiums listed here to get involved in such an undertaking, but money, in ridiculous amounts, is what this league, its network partners, and its advertisers have to offer.

One of the toughest challenges in such a scenario would be rearranging kickoff times to the existing schedules, outside of Thursday Night, Sunday Night, and Monday Night games, as 8 games could be played on a Sunday in the 8 proposed stadiums at the 10:00 am Pacific Standard Time slot, leaving five more games to be played in 5 of those 8 stadiums in the 1:30pm Pacific Standard Time slot. Speaking when no teams would be on a bye. This would leave the teams playing in the afternoon slot at the disadvantage having to play on a field that was already used earlier that day, as Inglewood and Berkeley are the only two facilities on this list that use artificial playing surfaces. Unlike the NBA and NHL scenarios, these natural playing surfaces would see extensive wear and need intensive care for the entire season, more than any of these facilities would normally see.

With all housing, meetings, practices, and games taking place in one state, under one set of statewide ordinances and regulations, the two bubbles would not need to interact with another area of the country until the Super Bowl in February 2021. Ah yes, what do we do with Super Bowl LV in this bubble scenario, considering it is scheduled to be held across the country at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. Well, it could stay, considering it is one game with just two teams and one crew. But if the league wanted to keep things in the bubble, Super Bowl LV could be moved to Los Angeles’ SoFi Stadium, which is already scheduled to host Super Bowl LVI the following year. Tampa and LA could essentially flip spots over the next two years. This could be another crushing blow to Tampa though, considering they already lost this past April’s WrestleMania and could potentially lose next February’s Super Bowl as well. Combine that with putting all their faith in a run-down Tom Brady and Gronk, Tampa could be permanently ruined.

While this technically could be pulled off with the current 2020 schedule intact, the best way to truly protect the integrity of the bubble would be for the league to condense the season by making one huge slash to the schedule; Drop interconference play this year until the Super Bowl. This would reduce the 16-game schedule to a 12-game schedule. An example of this would be the New Orleans Saints eliminating their 4 games against the AFC West, leaving only 6 games against the NFC South, 4 games against the NFC North, 1 game against Philadelphia, and 1 against San Francisco, all teams in the NFC, all teams in their regional bubble. Keeping the AFC in the north bubble and the NFC in the south bubble without interaction. This would work for the television personnel as well. CBS would keep their crew in the AFC bubble and FOX would keep theirs in the NFC bubble. NBC and ESPN would need to get creative with how they handled Sunday and Monday Night Football respectively.

Are there problems with this proposal? Certainly. But frankly, there are problems with what is being proposed to us in treating this season as normal. We are in unprecedented times, my friends. It would be great to see the 2020 NFL season play out in full, with players and personnel kept as close to health as humanly possible. A bubble scenario may be the best resolution to see those hopes play out. Maybe a bubble scenario like this one is the solution, maybe another one is, but time to turn these possibilities into a reality is rapidly running out. The next time the Saints run out of that tunnel in the Superdome may not come until 2021, but if that’s what it takes to ensure a familiar NFL season in 2021 and beyond, a bubble scenario this year will certainly be worth it.