The N.F.L., which generates about three-quarters of its $15 billion in annual revenue from the sale of national broadcast rights, sponsorships and merchandise, is far less reliant on ticket sales and local revenue than other professional sports leagues.
Still, the league stands to lose between $2 billion and $4 billion in revenue this season if fans are not on hand to buy tickets, luxury suites, food, merchandise and parking passes. The owners expect the players, who receive about 48 percent of league revenue, to absorb a proportional amount of those losses. Usually, the salary cap is reset each February based on expectations for revenue for the coming season.
If local prohibitions against large gatherings are upheld, the lack of fans could be especially hard on the Rams and Chargers in Los Angeles, and the Raiders in Las Vegas, which are opening new stadiums this season. The Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos and other teams that routinely play in front of big crowds would also be disproportionately hurt, even if local regulations allow them to admit some fans.
The dilemma the league and union face is how quickly to claw back those losses. If the salary cap is dramatically cut next season to recoup losses quickly, free agents could be hurt because teams would have far less money to spend. If the league and union lower the salary cap over a series of years to spread out the losses, a future generation of players will end up sharing the burden.
While the pandemic forced Major League Baseball, the N.B.A. and other leagues to cut their seasons significantly, the N.F.L. has been able to operate its off-season largely as scheduled, albeit virtually. Free agency, the draft and voluntary team workouts have been held on time. The league and union approved safety protocols that have allowed coaches and front office staff to return to team facilities.
But the N.F.L. and union have still not agreed upon the testing and quarantine guidelines for the thousands of players that are supposed to start training camp at the end of July.
In an open letter to players sent on June 30, J.C. Tretter, the union’s president, said that the players should not let management dictate the terms of when and how they return to training camp.