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No tailgating allowed: Lambeau Field staple on hold to start the season

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GREEN BAY, Wis. — The gate to Lot 1 at Lambeau Field was open all summer. Fans could come and go as they pleased. Except they rarely did. With Green Bay Packers training camp practices closed to fans because of the coronavirus pandemic, the stadium parking lots sat mostly empty.

Fans who used to come to watch training camp practices didn’t show up.

Fantasy football players who in the past held their drafts in the parking lot stayed home.

Sure, there were occasional visitors who wanted to take a picture in front of the historic stadium or see the giant Lombardi Trophy in the atrium lobby or even spend a few bucks in the Packers Pro Shop.

There was the group of a dozen family members from Utah who were in town for a funeral and just happened to show up on the morning that some Packers rookies — including quarterback Jordan Love, whom they followed from his Utah State days — tried to keep the training-camp bike-riding tradition alive even though kids weren’t allowed to participate.

There was a couple from Oregon that came on consecutive days and stood atop the steps to the Oneida Nation Gate, where they could see into the players’ parking lot, just to get a glimpse of some Packers.

But the day-after-day scene throughout the month of August painted a bleak picture of what game days will look like at one of the NFL’s most vibrant and celebrated venues.

Even players noticed.

“It’s different,” Packers left tackle David Bakhtiari said. “This is a football community [and we’re used to] having people around. I do appreciate the community, respecting what’s going on at this time during this pandemic and giving not only the players their space but also practicing their physical distancing. It keeps us doing what we do so that they can enjoy what they love doing, which is watching us on Sundays.

“So we do definitely miss them in Lambeau Field. The sooner, and the more we keep doing our part, the sooner they’ll be allowed back in the stadium. So it’s definitely different [not] seeing [them], even in training camp, just around and outside the building, but appreciated nonetheless.”

It’s not just at the stadium.

The entire area — from the Packers-owned Titletown District to bars along Holmgren Way to the party houses that border Lambeau Field on both the north and south sides — has looked and will look drastically different Sunday when the Detroit Lions come to town for the home opener (1 p.m. ET, Fox).

The Packers, like many teams, decided not to allow fans in the stadium, at least not for their first two home games. They plan to reevaluate the situation and left open the possibility that a limited number of fans will be allowed as early as the Nov. 1 game against the Vikings.

But until then, the Packers will lock the parking lot gates and won’t even allow fans to throw tailgate parties on site.

“There are people saying that fans are still going to come down to that area, but we’ll see,” said Jess Miller, co-owner of The Bar on Holmgren Way.

‘Not overly optimistic’

The Bar is one of several large-scale entertainment venues along or adjacent to Holmgren Way, which intersects with Mike McCarthy Way. It includes venues such as Stadium View Bar & Grill, Anduzzi’s Sports Club, D2 Sports Pub Stadium District and the Green Bay Distillery.

All are close enough to Lambeau Field that fans can come for pregame entertainment and then walk to the stadium.

“We’re expecting that we will have some [fans] come into town — we’ve seen people come without tickets and just want to be in the atmosphere — so we are expecting a few but certainly you can’t make up the home game crowd,” said Brad Toll, president/CEO of the Greater Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We don’t want to be a part of the problem, but at the same time we’re hoping to help our businesses stay in business.”

At The Bar, the plan is to have the usual pregame outdoor setup with a tent, live music and giant TV for outdoor viewing of the game.

But it might be for naught.

“If they come the first game, then there’s hope maybe they’ll come for other games,” Miller said. “If they don’t for the first game, I don’t see people coming to that area unless there’s fans allowed. We’re going to try to recreate that atmosphere to some degree, but I’m not overly optimistic.”

Miller said The Bar typically parks 350 cars and 50 buses in their lots on game day and draws more than 2,000 fans to their pregame festivities.

To both the north and south of the stadium, small single-family homes have been turned into game weekend party houses.

Many of those have gone unrented so far this year.

“We’ve had some inquiries and we have two games booked, but one of them is for a wedding,” said Mike Madson, who owns a party house one block south of Lambeau on Morris Avenue. “They’re not even coming for a game, it just happens to be for a game weekend. We’ve seen interest and people have asked a lot of questions, but people are very hesitant to book.”

In a normal year, Madson said his house is booked for the entire season within a week of the schedule being released.

The party house rental business has become an industry in and of itself over the past decade or so. It’s part of the reason Madson turned his late grandmother’s house from a regular family home into an entertainment venue.

The four-bedroom house has a heated party garage with an all-glass back that offers a view of the stadium — the ‘G’ on the outside of Lambeau’s South Gate is in full view.

“My grandma loved it when everyone came to party at her house for Packers games, so I thought it would be a cool idea to do that in her memory,” Madson said. “And obviously it’s a really good way to make some money.”

Even the neighboring houses that still serve as residential homes take part in the game-day festivities. Many rent out their driveways and lawns for fans to park and tailgate.

“It’s pretty fun because everyone around there parks cars on their lawns, so there are parties everywhere,” Madson said. “It’s a party. The guy right next door has a huge party for every game.

“It’s not like this anywhere I’ve been to in other NFL cities. It’s not even like this in Kansas City; there’s a lot of tailgating in Kansas City, but it’s all in the parking lot. It’s just such a unique experience where you’ve got people coming out of their homes to party with people from out of town.”

‘No way a city our size can replace that’

Toll estimates that each Packers’ home game generates $15 million in revenue for the city of Green Bay and the surrounding areas. Counting two preseason games, that’s $150 million per football season. Then there’s training camp and the annual Family Night practice, which typically bring another 100,000 visitors who spend around $10 million each summer.

“There’s no way a city our size — 105,000 people or 270,000 in our county — can replace that,” Toll said.

“A community the size of Chicago, Minneapolis, Detroit in our division, a lot of those fans are local and given the huge number of hotel rooms that they have, a home game is certainly exciting but from a tourism perspective financially it’s barely a blip on the radar,” he added. “But for a community our size where 87% of fans [at home games] don’t live in our community, the impact it has is bigger than any other sports franchise in any sport. It’s been devastating, but we will find a way through.”

The Packers wouldn’t disclose how much revenue they generate from each home game but as the only publicly owned NFL team, they release an annual breakdown of their finances. Last year, they reported a 6.1% increase in total revenue, which includes the national TV money, and a 3.6% increase in local revenue that includes ticket sales, sponsorship and merchandise sales. The TV money will come in as long as the games continue, but the local revenue will not.

“There are a few elements in place, with the most notable being the tarps (with advertisements) that will be placed over the first rows of seats in the stadium,” Packers director of public affairs Aaron Popkey said when asked how the team will try to make up for lost revenue.

While the Packers can make do — they hope to operate without dipping into their corporate reserve fund, which is close to $400 million — many of those who do business outside the stadium, those who depend on fans who come to town, will suffer.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see what it’s like around there on Sunday,” Madson said. “This is going to be something you may never see again at Lambeau Field, where it could be just dead down there.”

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Toronto FC hoping to make MLS Cup run having spent much of 2020 far from home

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On a recent Thursday in Hartford, Conn., Toronto FC goalkeeper Quentin Westberg pondered the dichotomy of wanting to reach MLS Cup on Dec. 12, but also desiring to see his family again. Meanwhile, Jim Liston, the team’s director of sports science, was planning a trip to Lowe’s to buy 15 garbage cans so players could have an ice bath after training. As for manager Greg Vanney, he was fretting about his team’s health and the lack of practice time their schedule was affording.

Such is the life of a team as it attempts to not only navigate its way through the COVID-19 pandemic, but has been forced to do it away from home.

Due to travel restrictions between the U.S. and Canada, TFC — like the league’s other two Canadian teams, Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps — set up a “home” base in the U.S. for the remainder of the season; Toronto were stationed in Hartford. (Vancouver Whitecaps took roost in Portland, ground-sharing with Timbers, while Montreal Impact split use of New York Red Bulls’ facilities in Harrison, N.J.) This was on top of nearly every team spending nearly a month inside a bubble back in July at the MLS is Back Tournament outside Orlando, Florida.

The Reds spent about seven weeks back in Toronto as they played a series of matches against Canadian teams. In mid-September, the remainder of the regular season — and the temporary move to Hartford — beckoned. The vagabond nature of the campaign is what led Liston to joke that he was willing to discuss “whatever five seasons” the team has been through so far. But for Vanney and the players, the campaign has required a special kind of focus.

“A lot of what we’ve done here, and what we try to preach here is just control the controllables, and don’t get too drawn into the things you can’t,” Vanney told ESPN. “Roll with it, and make the best out of whatever the situation is.”

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Toronto has largely succeeded in spite of its odyssey. While there was disappointment at missing out on the Supporters’ Shield to the Philadelphia Union, TFC went 7-3-2 during its Hartford sojourn and finished with the second-best record in the league. But the challenges have still been immense. Simply being out of one’s home environment is difficult enough, but the time spent away from family and loved ones weighs heavy on the psyche, even as Vanney has given players the occasional trip back to Toronto — under quarantine — to reconnect with loved ones.

“It’s just very different, very challenging and emotionally exhausting,” Westberg said of his experience while based in Hartford.

Westberg has arguably had it tougher than most. The TFC goalkeeper is married with four children, including a baby girl who was born in June. For that reason, Westberg and his wife, Ania, made the decision at the end of September that it would be better for her and their kids to head back to his native France so they could be surrounded by family. Westberg called it “the least bad decision,” but there are difficulties nonetheless.

“I’m a very even person, and this year has challenged me a lot,” he said. “I’m still pretty even, but I keep a lot to myself and for sure there’s some difficult days, seeing your family [struggle] from your absence.”

The inability to be home has affected the players and staff in other ways. In Toronto, there are ways of disengaging from the game. Being with friends, loved ones or even in familiar surroundings can be the best medicine in terms of forgetting a bad game or training session. But in Hartford, at the team’s hotel, that escape is nearly impossible even as players try to distract themselves by reading or taking online classes.

“You don’t really unplug,” Westberg said. “You FaceTime family, or this or that, but it’s too short. You’re 100 percent focused on your soccer, and your whole day basically relies on being ready for whatever soccer activity that you have next, whether it’s practice or game. It’s good for your physique, it’s optimal for the way you eat and the way you [train]. But mentally, you’re not as fresh as your body.”

That isn’t to say there are only negatives to the separation. There is also an us-against-the-world mentality that Toronto has adopted, given that their players and personnel are experiencing the season in a way that is vastly different than most other teams. The team staff has done what it can to make their surroundings a home away from home, whether it’s personalizing the locker rooms at Rentschler Field or having hotel staff brand the surroundings in TFC colors. The hotel went so far as to bring in a barista who could consistently give the players their coffee fix. Supporters groups have even sent down banners in a bid to convey the fact that the players are remembered.

The care that TFC takes for players has extended to families back home, with the club supplying meals to loved ones three times a week.

On the logistical side, Liston made sure that one of the gyms used at MLS is Back was brought to TFC’s hotel in Hartford, and he remarked that the food at the hotel is “arguably the best we’ve ever had on the road.”

There have also been efforts to create new routines. Assistant coach Jason Bent, aka DJ Soops, has been in charge of the pregame music selection for the past 18 months — no easy feat for a squad that has a considerable international presence. In Hartford, Bent has set aside Thursday nights to spin music in one area of the hotel. He’ll even go live on Instagram or Twitch for those who prefer to relax in their rooms.

“[We] opened it to players and staff and basically anyone that’s part of our bubble to come relax, listen to music and just enjoy each other’s company,” Bent said. “I enjoy making people happy so if it’s helping everyone even in the slightest, I have no problem arranging the set and spinning.”

For Vanney, the pandemic and operating outside of the team’s home market has meant any number of challenges. He said the team has used three different training facilities in Hartford, with varying field conditions. He recognizes that the trips home are vital for the mental health of his players and staff, but any breaks also mean less time spent on the practice field. The compressed schedule, which at times involved games every three or four days, has had an impact as well. Even the best-laid plans in terms of squad rotation were impacted as minor injuries began popping up.

“We end up with a lot of guys in different positions because they need special kinds of treatment or care to help them get fit and back to health,” Vanney said. “So it ends up being a lot of different things kind of going on all at once, and that’s been the challenge of it.”

Recovery from matches has been complicated by the fact that TFC doesn’t have access to the same level of facilities that it does at home — hence Liston’s emergency trip to Lowe’s to fashion impromptu ice baths for the players. Then there are the different ways the players occupy themselves on the road as compared to home, especially amid the pandemic.

“There’s really no life outside of the hotel,” Liston said. “[At home], you may go walk the dog in the afternoon or go for a walk with your wife or friend or girlfriend or family and you’re out and about. The recommendation [here] is to kind of stay put. So you’ve got a really active population and pro athletes, who we’re asking them to be sedentary the rest of the time, kind of stay in the hotel from a COVID and safety standpoint. That’s not optimal for recovery either.”

There are also the creature comforts of home that are no longer available on the road, which can impact sleep.

“Sleep is the number one tool for recovery, and that’s definitely been a challenge,” Liston said. “We do well-being questionnaires and the scores on quality of sleep, and hours of sleep, just drop.”

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Tom Barlow and Brian White seal Toronto’s fate in a 2-1 win for New York Red Bulls. Watch MLS on ESPN+.

Another change has been same-day travel, which has drawn mixed reactions from the TFC players and staff. Vanney and Westberg are generally in favor, saying it reminds them of when they each played in France. Flying back the same night also means a training day isn’t lost. Liston has a different perspective in that he prefers arriving the day before, and then leaving the same day.

“I think [same-day travel] makes for a really long day,” he said. “And there’s definitely a negative impact on performance, taking three bus rides and a plane ride before your game. You’re getting home — it can be 12:30, but it could also be 1:30 in the morning, and that’s where you know our well-being scores and sleep hours and quality just disappear. When you have so many games in succession, you can’t make up the sleep.”

With the playoffs set to begin for TFC on Nov. 24, the end is in sight, even as it makes for a complex — and even conflicting — set of emotions.

“This is the tricky part. I miss them a lot,” Westberg said of his family. “But in a way I want to see them as [late] as possible in December, because obviously, there’s this idea that we want to do well in the playoffs and we want to keep going. TFC has a history of setting high standards and high expectations. It’s a heavy load to carry but also an exciting one.”

Win or lose, it’s a season they’ll never forget.

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Bettman: NHL is mulling temporary realignment

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The NHL is considering a temporary realignment of its teams for the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19 travel restrictions, according to commissioner Gary Bettman.

Bettman said Tuesday that restrictions on travel across the Canadian border, as well as “limitations in terms of quarantining when you go from certain states to other states” within the United States, could mean the NHL creates a more regionalized alignment for its upcoming season.

“As it relates to the travel issue, which is obviously the great unknown, we may have to temporarily realign to deal with geography, because having some of our teams travel from Florida to California may not make sense. It may be that we’re better off — particularly if we’re playing a reduced schedule, which we’re contemplating — keeping it geographically centric and more divisional-based; and realigning, again on a temporary basis, to deal with the travel issues,” Bettman said during a 2020 Paley International Council Summit panel with fellow commissioners Adam Silver of the NBA and Rob Manfred of MLB.

The NHL board of governors has a meeting scheduled for Thursday which will provide a progress report and possible recommendations for a season format, based on talks between the league and the NHL Players’ Association. The target date for starting next season remains Jan. 1.

Bettman said the league is considering a few scheduling options for the 2020-21 season. Something that’s off the table: playing the entire season in the kind of bubbles the NHL had in Toronto and Edmonton, Alberta, to complete last season. But Bettman said teams opening in their own arenas is a possibility, along with a modified bubble.

“We are exploring the possibility of playing in our own buildings without fans [or] fans where you can, which is going to be an arena-by-arena issue. But we’re also exploring the possibility of a hub. You’ll come in. You’ll play for 10 to 12 days. You’ll play a bunch of games without traveling. You’ll go back, go home for a week, be with your family. We’ll have our testing protocols and all the other things you need,” he said.

Bettman also indicated that the NHL is exploring “a hybrid, where some teams are in a bubble, some teams play at home and you move in and out.”

The NBA’s board of governors unanimously approved a deal with the players’ union that sets the stage for a season that will open on Dec. 22 and with a reduced schedule of 72 games. Silver said that the commissioners are in communication on COVID-19-related issues, especially the NBA and the NHL, since the two leagues’ teams share arenas and, in some cases, team owners.

Silver said he senses that the NBA will have fans in many of its buildings this season.

“We’re probably going to start one way, where we’re maybe a little bit more conservative than many of the jurisdictions allow,” he said. “What we’ve said to our teams is that we’ll continue to work with public health authorities. Arena issues are different than outdoor stadium issues. There will be certain standards for air filtration and air circulation. There may be a different standard for a suite than there will be for fans spaced in seats.”

Silver said there will be standardized protocols that are consistent from arena to arena, such as proximity between players and fans: “In certain cases, for seats near the floor, we’re going to be putting in testing programs, where fans will certify that they’ve been tested — some within 48 hours, some within day of game.” While Silver supported a continued expansion of the NBA postseason through its play-in tournament, Bettman said that he’s not in favor of expanded playoffs or “playing with the fundamentals of the game.” The NHL had 24 teams in its postseason last summer.

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The Battleground States Where We’ve Seen Some Movement In The Polls

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With apologies to The Raconteurs, the presidential race continues to be “steady as she goes,” with little sign of tightening despite a plethora of new polls. FiveThirtyEight’s presidential forecast gives Joe Biden an 89 in 100 shot at winning the election, while President Trump has just an 11 in 100 chance. This makes Biden the favorite, but still leaves open a narrow path to victory for Trump, for whom a reelection win would be surprising — but not utterly shocking.

At the same time, we also have fewer polls from live-caller surveys, which have historically been more accurate and have shown slightly better numbers for Biden, than polls that use other methodologies, such as polls conducted primarily online or through automated telephone calls. Nevertheless, while the overall picture has shifted only a little in recent days, a few battleground states have seen at least some movement in their polls, which has slightly altered the odds Biden or Trump wins in each of those places.

What election stories need to get more coverage | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast

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