Trump, NFL Want Season to Start on Time. Governors, Mayors May Disagree. Where's the Smart Money?

Cameron Smith

On Saturday, President Trump held a conference call with leaders of all the American professional sports leagues and declared he wanted them up and running as soon as a healthy return is possible. His key dates fell in August and September, aligned with the scheduled start of the NFL season. That's probably music to the ears of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, but it could be meaningless if governors and mayors don't agree that such a return is healthy for the community.

That all makes this line provided by Bovada and a select few online sportsbooks even more difficult to wrap one's head around. After the NFL being favored to return on time just two weeks ago, the odds are now decidedly in favor of a delayed return to action:

When will 2020 NFL season start?

— On or before Sep. 13: +185

— After Sep. 13: -275

On the one hand, the very nature of the coronavirus' spread makes it impossible to get a decent sense of emerging scale or scope, and the evolving data on potential reinfection out of Asia (both a new province in China and Singapore are flirting with second stage lockdowns to prevent spread) further muddies the water of expectations. Play those confusing developments out in front of the political quagmire of civic leadership in different areas in conflict with the federal government in an election year, and there's every reason to be skeptical of a transparent and unified approach to re-engagement with traditional civic life. That includes the return of professional sports, and especially the NFL.

While the NBA could reportedly return in a limited, single city capacity to speed through the final stages of the season and a truncated playoffs, the NFL can't pull off such a gambit. Rather, the nature of the game practically mandates the 16-game season (it won't become a 17-game slate until 2021) be stretched out as far as possible for the health of players. Those games don't necessarily have to be played in front of fans in packed stadiums, but the league's economics are such that missing that revenue would be devastating to teams' profitability (while their bottom lines would not be as crippled as European soccer clubs, the hit from a total lack of ticket sales would be destabilizing at best and enough to completely overturn healthy balance sheets at worst).

That accounts for one half of the motivation to get the 2020 season started on time. The other comes from a desperate desire to have tent pole events for authorities to point to as a return to normalcy. That was clearly the driving force behind the current administration's leaked call on Saturday, which laid out its case for the 2020 season to kick off as scheduled.

Together, the NFL owners the and executive branch of the federal government provide two very powerful lobbies to get football off and running in August and September. On the other side sit city and state executives in the sites of major stadia, as well as the players themselves if there are absolutely any legitimate fears about reinfection or a second wave of spread.

That's where things get interesting. Essentially, state executives (i.e., governors and possibly even Directors or Secretaries of state departments of health) could contravene NFL and federal rulings that would allow for a return to action by simply outlawing gatherings above a limited number of people. The same could happen via edicts from mayors. When combined with the delays in complete statewide shutdowns from a number of southern states and concern over rolling peak periods that could hit areas like Florida and Texas weeks or even a month or more from now, identifying a time frame when the entire country could be safe enough to host 70,000 fans in a single stadium is an almost impossible task for leading epidemiologists and international health leaders, let alone politicians and professional sports owners with no medical or scientific training whatsoever.

For now, the betting line seems to be more a reflection on the general national mood over the coronavirus. There's currently immense pessimism based on the announced expectations of loss of life and duration. That in turn drives both sentiment and betting capital against an on-time start.

Still, the most direct statement made by the current odds is this: The betting public is clearly leaning in toward scientific data and analysis and away from political proclamation. The more of that emerges, the smarter the bet against an on-time start appears to be, regardless of odds.