There he was in his basement, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell, like a mirage in a sports-starved desert, to announce that the first pick of the 2020 league draft would be Louisiana State quarterback Joe Burrow, joining the Cincinnati Bengals. It was one of a handful of events to have summoned sports fans en masse since the coronavirus pandemic shut down the United States.
Even as the league basks in the draft spotlight, its teams and officials — after initially insisting that the season would proceed as usual — have been dropping hints this week that the hurdles to returning to the field are daunting, particularly with fans in attendance.
DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the N.F.L. players’ union, said the players were in no rush to return to football, especially when the game’s leadership was still trying to determine the “right questions to ask” about whether it would be safe for the players and their families.
The union’s medical director was more emphatic.
“We’ll go anywhere the science takes us and nowhere the science doesn’t,” Dr. Thom Mayer said. “We’re going to look at everything as long as it keeps the patient-player, all 2,500 of them, safe.”
Goodell acknowledged that the N.F.L. understood the warnings of the governors who want to go slowly in terms of reopening their states.
“You have to be willing to be prepared to adapt,” Goodell said in an interview on ESPN. “You can’t expect or anticipate every move, but your job is to try to be as prepared as possible.”
As the nation’s largest sports league — with $15 billion in annual revenue and counting — the N.F.L. is more than a bellwether, it is an enormous economic ecosystem. The absence of games will hurt not only the thousands of workers at team facilities and stadiums, but also the biggest corporations and the television networks that do business with the N.F.L.
A continued shutdown of the league could also rattle the country’s already frayed psyche. The N.F.L. dominates the national sports conversation from Labor Day through the Super Bowl in February, and the league’s off-season calendar, including the three-day draft, is part of its drive to be a 365-day-a-year experience.
For now, the league is milking its moment as the only show in town. The N.F.L. may be the largest and most popular league in the country, but this time of year the sports landscape is often dominated by the start of baseball, the playoffs in basketball and hockey, the Masters golf tournament and the Kentucky Derby. With no competition, the N.F.L. has seen a surge in interest as it produces fresh news about its teams and players.
During the first round of the draft on Thursday, the league not only promoted the draft picks and their many sponsors, but also invited music stars, comedians and other celebrities to help generate charitable donations. Despite the oddity of seeing players and coaches sitting in their homes, the more muted draft appeared to match the moment in a lockdown world. The N.F.L. said that an average of 15.6 million people watched the first round, which was broadcast on ABC, ESPN, ESPN Deportes and NFL Network. Viewership was 26 percent higher than the record set in 2014, which was before ABC showed the event.
Sports have often been a comfort in troubling times, most notably two decades ago, when baseball provided succor for a country reeling from the extremist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. That can’t happen the same way in this era of social distancing.
Still, there are signs that the N.F.L. has filled a vacuum. .
In mid-March, during the week that free-agent players began signing with teams, viewership of N.F.L. content on social media sites rose 53 percent compared with the same period last year. Visitors to the league’s website and app rose 8 percent, while the amount of time fans spent there rose 16 percent.
Even minor realignments yielded outsize reactions.
On March 20, the Atlanta Falcons sent out a tweet that simply said, “We got him!” when running back Todd Gurley signed as a free agent. The tweet racked up four times the “likes” of the message the team had sent after earning a trip to the Super Bowl three years ago.
Even the leaders in the Atlanta organization were surprised.
“When the N.F.L. decided that the draft was going to happen, we went back to our fans, and overwhelmingly they said, ‘Yes, give us a distraction,’” said Morgan Shaw Parker, the Falcons’ chief marketing officer.
Similarly, the Cleveland Browns saw their website traffic double compared with the same time a year ago, and the Arizona Cardinals found popularity on YouTube with a look back at quarterback Kyler Murray’s rookie season.
“We’re just unique in sports that this happened at a time when we weren’t in season,” said Brian Rolapp, the chief media and business officer of the N.F.L. “We have an opportunity to give people an escape and distraction. It’s a time of great anxiety.”
No one knows this better than Gerry Martire, a disc jockey from Long Island and a lifelong New York Giants fan. Every year, he flies down to Florida and hangs out with a longtime friend, Mitch Lieberman, on draft night.
Not this year. They had to connect remotely. It was not ideal, but Martire can live with it.
“Everyone gets how serious this is,” he said of the pandemic. “But you’re not preoccupied with what store to go to get Clorox when you spend time analyzing a team’s roster or potential draft picks.”
After spending hours watching the draft on Thursday, Martire was sated, at least for the moment.
“It filled a void nicely,” he said on Friday. “It was cool to hang and drift along” and not think about “the latest nightmare for the day.”
Once the draft concludes on Saturday, the N.F. L has another distraction planned for as soon as May 9, when it announces the 2020 season schedules for each team. Chatter about who will face the Brady-led Bucs — New England, anyone? — and which teams stand in the way of the Kansas City Chiefs’ repeating as Super Bowl champions will give football fans more oxygen.
But for how long? Until training camps open in August? In October? Or perhaps 2021?