The NFL has a new plan to refund tickets if games have to be played in empty stadiums next season

Key Points
  • The NFL is planning for the 2020 season as normal but with major contingency plans.
  • The league has created a uniform ticket refund policy for all teams because of the uncertainty around how games will be played during the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The possibility of no fans or a limited fan base is troublesome for companies that resell tickets.
Season ticket holders display their badge during a football game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the New Orleans Saints at Raymond James Stadium on November 17, 2019 in Tampa, Florida.
Julio Aguilar | Getty Images

The NFL has created a contingency plan for ticket refunds during the 2020 season should coronavirus impact the ability of fans to attend games. 

According to a memo obtained by CNBC, Commissioner Roger Goodell warned teams that because of the "unique circumstances" it is facing, they should be prepared to make adjustments. As part of that preparation, the league has established a uniform ticket refund policy with all of its clubs ahead of its planned schedule release on Thursday. The Associated Press previously reported on Goodell's memo.

Goodell's memo said the league has confirmed with all teams that they will have a policy in place to refund fans for tickets if a game is cancelled or has to be played in an empty stadium due to health concerns related to the coronavirus. Fans will also have the option of applying the amount paid to another ticket for a game at a later date.

The league has also worked with its licensed ticketing partners to understand their individual refund policies and drive as much consistency as possible.

For those who buy single-game tickets purchased through NFL licensed channels, both Ticketmaster and SeatGeek have pledged to make full refunds available for all primary or secondary ticket sales within no longer than 30 days of cancellation, while StubHub will do so only where required by state law.

"We will be prepared to make necessary adjustments just as we have in other contexts, such as the off-season program and the draft," Goodell said in the memo.

The memo said all decisions by the league will be guided by medical and public health officials and will comply with government regulations. 

"I believe the policies that clubs have in place will serve the league and all member clubs in a variety of ways and will allow us to continue preparing for the 2020 season while also protecting the interests of our fans," Goodell said in the memo.

Fanless games could be catastrophic to ticketing companies 

As the NFL weighs its contingency plans, one possibility is that games are played in stadiums without fans. 

For secondary ticket sellers like TicketIQ, the consequences of football without fans in the stands could be dire.

"Financially, we're planning for zero revenue the rest of 2020 and hoping for a best case of events returning with fans in August," said Jesse Lawrence, founder of TicketIQ. 

Using data from the 2019 secondary prices, Lawrence said games without fans could have a nearly $4.8 billion impact on the ticket market. By team, the biggest losses would come from the New England Patriots, which Lawrence estimates would lose $376 million. 

"I do think that either way the secondary market is going to be meaningfully smaller for some period of time, which is going to impact revenue for marketplaces," said Lawrence. 

What games with limited capacity would look like

Lawrence predicted that when the NFL season starts, attendance will be in a limited capacity and consisting of mostly season ticket holders in the available seats. When supply ramps up, he said teams may choose to make single-game tickets available.  

For the secondary market, that would mean an extremely tight supply of tickets and most likely the available tickets will be costly. 

The Miami Dolphins recently became the first NFL team to earn the Global Biorisk Advisory Council Star accreditation for Hard Rock stadium. The accreditation ensures compliance with critical guidelines for the highest standard of cleanliness. 

Miami Dolphins President and CEO Tom Garfinkel gave a glimpse into the options teams are considering in order to keep their fans and players safe during a segment Monday on "Good Morning America." One of those ideas is limiting the number of fans in the stadium to 15,000 people to adhere to social distancing guidelines, despite the 65,000 capacity of Hard Rock Stadium. 

In a poll conducted by Seton Hall University in April, 72% of Americans said they would not attend a game in person without a vaccine for the coronavirus.  

The NFL will release its schedule for the next season at 8 p.m. Eastern on Thursday.

NFL Draft held online due to coronavirus pandemic