As May turned to June, amid the coronavirus chaos that was disrupting every workplace and life, Eagles president Don Smolenski started working on an idea.
Smolenski knew that absent some sort of coronavirus vaccine-development miracle, he wasn’t going to be welcoming capacity crowds of 69,796 people into Lincoln Financial Field come Eagles season. If there was a season, though, he thought there was a chance, at some point, that some fans might be able to attend. Smolenski and his staff had to figure out how that might happen.
Sunday, Smolenski will find out how he did, when the Eagles welcome the Baltimore Ravens, and around 6,000 fans, into a stadium whose seats were graced only by cardboard cutouts for the first two home games of 2020.
Season-ticket holders earlier were given the option of opting in or opting out of this virus-marked season. Those who opted in were given an opportunity Wednesday to buy pods of tickets – two to six seats per pod – for Sunday’s game and for the upcoming Thursday game against the New York Giants. Each pod will be seated at least six feet from the closest adjoining group of fans, in each direction.
Smolenski said Friday that he expected to be sold out by game time, though there were players' tickets and tickets available to the Ravens that were still in play.
Smolenski and his staff had a plan ready to present to state and city officials by early July, he said. Getting to that point wasn’t a breeze. Since the Linc opened in 2003, the Eagles had grown accustomed to working at one scale, looking to park, house, feed, and otherwise accommodate roughly 70,000 people.
“For 17 years, we’ve been operating that building at 70,000 people, you know it like the back of your hand,” he said. “Now you had to sort of stop dead in your tracks and say, ‘We need to wipe away what we’ve been doing.’ … Reimagine the experience.”
The lower bowl of the Linc usually holds 30,000 people. Sunday it will hold 3,500, who can go to concession stands to buy prepackaged food and drink, but must take it right back to their seats.
Figuring out the logistics, though, was the easy part. The hard part was getting the OK from state and city officials who were fighting a daily battle against the pandemic’s death toll, who might not have considered figuring out how to get fans into football games to be their top priority.
“To their credit, in the midst of everything they were dealing with, they were also going through those materials with us. I know the one document for games with fans was in excess of 80 pages,” Smolenski said. “At the same time, we obviously had to present a plan to operate games without fans,” as ended up being the case for the contests with the Rams and the Bengals last month.
In talking about the ways their business has been affected by the pandemic, Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie and general manager Howie Roseman have made it a point to stress that a lot of people and businesses have it much worse, that they know the NFL is not the center of the universe. Smolenski reflected this stance, one that is not universal in the league.
“Given our environment, given everything that the whole region has been going through, all the businesses are going through, all the people are going through, you try to sort of keep everything in perspective,” Smolenski said. “We invested a lot in terms of developing a plan and [having] protocols in place that we felt we could do that, but we also recognize that the state and the city have to balance a lot of different constituents. Sometimes you’ve got to step away from your own individual silos and look at the big picture.”
From the outside, as summer turned to fall, it appeared to be a frustrating situation. There was a lot of confusion about when restrictions might ease, and state and city guidelines diverged. The Eagles were caught flatfooted in July when the city abruptly announced no fans would be allowed at the Linc in 2020 – a stance the city immediately walked back.
Then, when Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced relaxed guidelines on outdoor events that allowed the Steelers to invite fans for last weekend’s victory over the Eagles, Philadelphia city government did not immediately follow suit. Had the Eagles-Steelers game not gone smoothly, virus-wise, the Eagles probably would not be welcoming fans this week.
That game “illustrated positive messages,” Smolenski said, and the city gave its OK on Tuesday. Smolenski said he got a heads-up about a day before.
Still, from the beginning, this was not a contentious process, Smolenski said.
“The nice thing was … that the dialogue with the representatives from the governor’s office and the state Health Department and the city and the city Health Department, it was collaborative,” he said.
“Everyone knew the importance of what was being discussed, but it wasn’t a combative approach at all, it was a collaborative approach that we all talked through, understanding that we were all trying to find a solution. We’re on the journey together, so that allowed there always to be some optimism.”
When presenting ideas within the NFL, you talk with people who speak your language, who understand the workings of stadiums and what is involved in the process of hosting games. Government officials don’t necessarily have that background.
“You just sort of had to, maybe, keep answering and responding to concerns, being understanding and respective of the questions, and kind of working through it together,” Smolenski said.
Nobody knew what would happen with the virus. Until the last few weeks, it was entirely possible that all the work the team put in to produce a stadium experience as socially distanced as possible would end up being in vain.
“In many respects, it really wasn’t frustrating, it was actually a good process. Would I have wished it could have happened quicker? Sure. But I think I also respected the methodology that we had to go through to balance the concerns from the governor’s office and the mayor’s office,” Smolenski said.
Pandemic experts differ on whether NFL teams should be welcoming fans to stadiums, and even on whether the league should be playing. Every week, it seems, there are games that are in danger of being postponed by positive COVID-19 tests among players and staff. The Eagles will have Jamon Brown starting at right guard Sunday instead of Matt Pryor, because someone Pryor was in close contact with tested positive recently, though Pryor has not.
Brown was asked Friday if he were a fan, would he attend Sunday’s game?
“Yes, with a mask, I would,” Brown said.
Every public place we go entails risk. Smolenski said he is confident he has made attending an Eagles game as safe as possible.
“We have the physical space to keep people farther apart than when they walk down the aisle of the [grocery store],” he said.