Having fans at Heinz Field for the first two games of this regular season already has been ruled out. After that, having fans in attendance for Steelers games will require a significant amount of planning and coordination among team management, the Governor's office, the State Department of Health, and local politicians. Even if all of that can come together, the result won't be a packed Heinz Field but instead a building that's maybe one-third full. Cleaning and sanitizing a venue of that size before and after an event and then fully staffing it for the event, only to be limited to populating it to a fraction of its capacity is not a money-maker, and in fact could turn out to be more costly than keeping the gates padlocked.
So why even bother? Why is Steelers President Art Rooney II so interested in having fans at Heinz Field for regular season games in 2020, and why is he so willing to commit the time and resources to try to make that happen?
"It comes down to that's what we're here for," said Rooney during a Thursday afternoon appearance on SNR. "That's what we're here for – our fans. That's kind of the whole point of things. We are playing these games for our fans and trying to win another championship for the City of Pittsburgh."
The Steelers will open their regular season on a Monday night at MetLife Stadium against the New York Giants less than two weeks from today, and that the NFL regular season will begin on time and Rooney's team will open play as things were scheduled back in early May is a rather remarkable development given the impact COVID-19 has had on every industry and every person in this country.
But rather than sit back and bask in the accomplishments that went into the Steelers moving their training camp to Heinz Field and operating rather seamlessly while adhering to the guidelines put forth by the NFL and state health officials, Rooney continues to be willing to do the work necessary to get fans, however many will be permitted, into Heinz Field this season.
"We are excited about getting started here next week," said Rooney. "Obviously, we wish that we would be able to welcome our fans to our games coming up here in September. We are just in a different time, an unusual time to say the least. We have been working closely with the Governor's office and the State Department of Health and communicating with our local public officials, a lot of people in the mix making sure the communications stay open. And really it just gets down to when does everybody agree that it's going to be safe for people to come to the stadium, even in a reduced capacity. We'll keep the door open. We'll keep working on it. We're trying to stay optimistic that at some point everybody will be comfortable with moving ahead with our plans. It's hard to predict anything for certain in this environment."
For now, there will be games played as scheduled, which is not something to be taken for granted, and while Rooney never has allowed himself to get roped into the prediction business, he admits to liking what he has been seeing from the 80 players participating in what has been a unique training camp at Heinz Field.
"I feel good about this team. I feel good about our roster," said Rooney. "Maybe more than anything, I really feel good about the attitude this team came into training camp with. It's such an unusual year, not having guys have the opportunity to get together in the spring, particularly some of the younger guys. I just like the attitude of the team, the work ethic the players have had, the business-like approach. It's been a good camp from that standpoint. Hopefully that carries into the regular season and serves as a great foundation for us as we travel through the ups and downs we undoubtedly will have, as with any NFL season."
One of the unquestioned ups so far has been has been what Ben Roethlisberger has shown in his comeback from right elbow surgery. Roethlisberger has not had any setbacks, nor has he required any time off, outside of the normal program Coach Mike Tomlin implemented for him and has followed for years. A fully functioning Roethlisberger is the best news the Steelers could've hoped to bring into the start of this season, and it appears as though that wish will come true.
"I would say one thing we know that I feel like we didn't know in May, or until we got into training camp, is what level of strength Ben has in his arm," said Rooney. "I think we are all comfortable in having watched him now in training camp a number of weeks, his arm strength is maybe better than it was last year. It's a Ben-level arm strength, so we are happy about that. It would have been nice to have a little more time for him to work with the receivers and the offense that he is going into this season with. I think every team is going to start this season at a different place than we have started past seasons. What that is going to mean on the field, I don't think anybody knows, but certainly what we have seen from Ben so far has been very encouraging."
And it always seems to come back to one thing for Rooney: How all of this impacts Steelers fans.
"It's too bad we couldn't be (at Saint Vincent College)," said Rooney. "One of the great parts about being up there is how many fans come out and watch practice every day. That gives the players a little bit of a lift on a hot summer afternoon when they have fans out there cheering for them diving for a long pass or something like that. It's been different. Being in a building that's been quiet the whole time, it's unusual, but it's probably something we needed in order to prepare for a season like this where in a lot of buildings we won't have fans. In some ways it was the right kind of atmosphere to prepare for the upcoming season."
A season that against all apparent odds will begin on schedule.
"It will be a different journey this year, but like everything else we are trying to adjust and make the best of it," said Rooney. "We'll play the games without fans, but it just won't feel right. We'll have to adjust. I'm sure the players will adjust. But there is no question it won't feel right not having fans in the stadium."