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Cuomo urges major sports teams to play without fans in stands

Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Monday he has "encouraged major sports teams" in the state to plan to play games without fans in attendance once schedules for hockey, basketball and baseball resume and the NFL season begins.

During a news conference at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, Cuomo said the state would be a "ready, willing and able partner" in helping with games being played on a televised-only basis while social distancing restrictions from the coronavirus pandemic are in place.

"If they can economically have games with no fans and the numbers work for them, the economics work, because the TV revenue is enough without the fan revenue," Cuomo said. "And that's actually a sport-by-sport determination; some sports actually rely more on the TV income, televised income, than the stadium/arena income.

"But if they can make the numbers work, I say, 'Great, come back. The state will work with you.' Because, remember, government rules right now could stop a team coming back, right? What's essential, what's not essential. So I'm saying the state will work with them to come back. They have to make their own economic decision, whether that economic model works for them. Can you do hockey without fans? Can you do baseball without fans? Can you do football without fans? They have to make that decision."

It is unlikely the Buffalo Sabres would play again at KeyBank Center this season, because the NHL seems to be focused on a plan to jump to a playoff format at hub sites. The Sabres are not expected to be among the teams that qualify.

The Bills and Sabres referred questions about the governor's comments to the NFL and NHL, respectively.

"We are preparing to play the 2020 NFL season as scheduled and with increased protocols and safety measures for all players, personnel and attendees," NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy wrote in an email. "We will be prepared to make adjustments as necessary, as we have during this offseason, demonstrating that we can safely and efficiently conduct key activities, such as free agency, the virtual offseason program and the 2020 NFL Draft.

A closed playground sign placed in Delaware Park. (Harry Scull Jr./Buffalo News)

"We will continue to make decisions based on the latest advice of medical and public health officials, as well as in full compliance with current and future government regulations. Our primary focus will be on protecting the health of our fans, players, club and league personnel and our communities."

In a separate email, NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly wrote, "We appreciate and share Governor Cuomo’s sentiment, and we would love nothing more than getting our New York-based clubs back on the ice as soon as possible. But we are not in a rush. We plan on doing this as deliberately and as safely as possible, and with the full knowledge and endorsement of the relevant New York State health and governmental authorities."

The NFL has cleared its teams to reopen their facilities Tuesday to some staff, though coaches and non-rehabbing players are not allowed. The Bills are expected to be among 10 teams not allowed to reopen because of restrictions in their respective areas. New York state has approved Western New York for a phase one reopening Tuesday, but the Bills' facility will remain closed because phase one does not apply to sports teams.

Bills' office staff would be allowed in phase two of the state's plan, though, according to the NFL's directive that no more than 50% of club employees with a maximum of 75 people would be allowed at the facility.

Despite the current ban on large gatherings, Cuomo said he saw no reason for teams not to play games once they're "up and running" after training camps and other steps for preparing to play are completed.

"And then, when we can fill a stadium again, we can fill a stadium," the governor said. "But why wait until you can fill a stadium before you start to bring the team back? And if you can televise it in the meantime, great. I mean, it's not as good as going to a game or going to a bar and watching the game. But people who are at home, if you have the chance to watch sports ... you know, I'm watching the reruns right now of the old, classic games and that's fun, but I'd rather watch current sports on TV, if it works."

Cuomo mentioned that he's looking forward to watching Bills games this season.

"But I'm still objective; I'm acting as governor. There's no personal agenda here," he said. "Yes, I do want to watch the Bills, but that is not subverting my role as governor. I think (encouraging teams to play minus fans) is in the best interest of all the people and in the best interest of the state of New York."

According to Forbes, without fans in attendance, the NFL would stand to lose $5.5 billion of stadium revenue (the sum of tickets, concessions, sponsors, parking and team stores) or 38% of its total revenue based on figures for the 2018 season. Forbes said the Bills, along with the Tennessee Titans and Cincinnati Bengals, would lose less than one-third of their total revenue, while the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots would lose half.

Forbes showed that, in 2018, the Bills ranked 29th in the NFL with $386 million in total revenue and $104 million in stadium revenue.

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