‘Sundays Are for Jesus and Football’ — Well, Maybe Not in California

As he does battle with the coronavirus, a record-setting $54 billion state budget deficit (roughly one-fourth of the budget he proposed back in January), plus statewide unemployment expected to reach Great Depression levels when the numbers are soon announced, California Gov. Gavin Newsom may be facing a nemesis he’d be wise to try and avoid.

That opponent would be, of all things, the National Football League.

Here’s the problem: The recently released NFL schedule for the 2020-21 season optimistically kicks off on September’s second weekend with a Sunday night game in Los Angeles (the Dallas Cowboys vs. the hometown Rams in their new state-of-the-art stadium), plus an afternoon game up north in the San Francisco Bay Area, with the 49ers hosting the Atlanta Falcons.

California’s governor has made it clear that fully attended stadium events in California this calendar year are as likely as President Trump going on a Twitter fast. The final stage of his gradual, four-stage reopening of the Golden State – when concerts, conventions and sports with live audiences are allowed to resume – only begins once COVID-19 treatments or a vaccine have been developed.

But even if the NFL decides to begin the season in empty stadiums, there’s still a possible California complication: It’s not clear that Newsom would go along with that modification. Asked about the feasibility of pro football this autumn, the governor replied: “It’s difficult for me to imagine what the league – broadly, leagues – do when one or two of their key personnel or players are tested positive. Do they quarantine the rest of team if an offensive lineman is practicing with a defensive lineman, and they are tested positive? What happens to the rest of the line? What happens for the game coming up next weekend? It’s inconceivable to me that that’s not a likely scenario.”

Before we go further, a point of clarification about California’s pro sports teams: It’s not just the state’s three NFL franchises that are in limbo. There’s also a question of what the future holds for California’s five Major League Baseball clubs and three National Basketball Association teams (plus, yes, pro soccer as well as a legion of college and high school teams) should their try to return to action this summer and fall.

Indeed, with MLB now talking about a July 4 (or so) start to an abbreviated season – teams would face only division rivals and the same geographic division in order to limit travel and risk – push may come to shove in California well before America’s asked if it’s “ready for some football.” If none of the five California franchises has a home park in which to play, that scuttles MLB’s plan for an even competition between the 10 American and National League West squads.

As for the NFL schedule, it too relies enormously on California – maybe too much so. A California team appears in prime time in seven of the 16 scheduled weeks where it’s an option (the final week of the season is all day games). A California team is slated to play a home game in 16 of the 17 scheduled weeks.

Then there’s the matter of the 49ers, last season’s Super Bowl runner-up, having four home games in “prime time” (that’s Thursday, Sunday and Monday evenings). That one team may not be as crucial to the NFL’s existence as, say, the Los Angeles Lakers and the NBA’s reliance on LeBron James. A better analogy would be MLB denied a chance to fully showcase the World Series-or-bust Los Angeles Dodgers.

Will Newsom and the NFL be able to work out a compromise? It’s worth noting that Robert Iger, until recently the Walt Disney’s Co.’s CEO, is a member of Newsom’s economic recovery task force. Disney owns ESPN, which pays the NFL almost $2 billion a year for the rights to Monday Night Football.

What are the NFL’s options if Newsom decides a stadium ban – crowds or not – is what’s best for California? The league could explore the option of the three California teams playing in the Phoenix area (two football stadiums are in nearby Glendale and Tempe), or further away in Dallas (four football stadiums, three of them collegiate venues). Better yet, the NFL could decide to defy Newsom and stage games in the Golden State, which has been the California way of doing things lately.

Last week, a network of 3,000 California churches announced that they’ll soon resume in-house services (reopening churches and close-contact business falls under the unmet Phase 3 of the Newsom strategy). Way to the northeast of Sacramento, rural and sparsely populated Modoc County, lacking any confirmed coronavirus cases, defied the gubernatorial edict and decided to resume business as usual (which isn’t much business, given that it’s the third least populous of California’s 58 counties, with roughly two residents per square mile). Newsom responded by threatening to cut off coronavirus-related aid to counties that decide to go rogue. 

And there’s always the courts – a Hail Mary pass for some California businesses looking to reopen sooner rather than later. Last week, an organization representing California-based barbers and salon owners (likewise part of Phase 3) announced plans to sue Newsom to reopen right away.   

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that the NFL has more than one audible it could call should its seasonal aspirations run afoul of the California governor’s consternation. As for Newsom, maybe it’s worth remembering that there’s political risk in tangling with a higher power than that of a nation-state. As they say in a different part of America: “Sundays are for Jesus – and football.”

Bill Whalen, Hoover Institution’s Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow, follows California and national politics and hosts Hoover’s “Area 45” podcast on the Trump presidency. He can be reached at whalenoped@gmail.com.


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