The stunning Super Bowl romp carried out by quarterback Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers earlier this month thrilled the 22,000 fans in attendance — and didn't make much of an impression on the cardboard cutouts sitting beside them. The crowd fell well short of the stadium's listed capacity of nearly 67,000.
The partially filled stadium raised questions about whether the league will be able to kick off its 2021 season with arenas at full capacity, a prospect that top U.S. infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci had previously called "possible."
In a new interview, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner Thomas Tull said he's "personally optimistic" that fans will "regularly attend" NFL games next season but that the prospects for full capacity remain unclear. He cautioned that mask-wearing and player safety protocols will likely remain a part of the sport, while acknowledging that there's "no playbook" for how the NFL should navigate the pandemic.
"Do I think there will be fans? Is it going to be full? I have no idea. But do I think fans will regularly attend? I'm personally optimistic," says Tull, a billionaire chief executive of the holding company Tulco, who lives in Pittsburgh.
"Do I think that perhaps checkpoints and masks might be a part of that equation somewhere? That's not hard to envision. Do I think testing is going to be a part of it, player safety, all those things? Certainly I do."
President Joe Biden said last week he expects the U.S. to return to normal by Christmas, but warned that he didn't want to "overpromise" a speedy return. Days later, Fauci agreed, adding that the U.S. will be "approaching a degree of normality" in the fall or winter.
Striking an optimistic note, billionaire public health philanthropist Bill Gates told Yahoo Finance that the U.S. can "avoid a fall wave" of COVID-19, especially if the public widely accepts the importance and safety of the vaccine.
Those projections may nevertheless imperil a full return to stadiums at the outset of the NFL season, which will begin on Sept. 9. By the final week of the 2020 regular season, in December, roughly half of stadiums allowed partial capacity and the other half disallowed fans altogether.
The distribution and use of the COVID-19 vaccine will play a key role in determining when everyday life can return to normal, Tull said.
"I'm rooting for our entire country on the vaccine front to try to get things distributed as quickly as we can, especially the people that need it the most," he says. "Hopefully, we can all get back to living." "
"I think about everything," he adds, "Small business owners, who are trying to make it to the other side of this, which is really the backbone of this country."
Tull spoke to Yahoo Finance Editor-in-Chief Andy Serwer in an episode of “Influencers with Andy Serwer,” a weekly interview series with leaders in business, politics, and entertainment.
Since 2017, Tull has led Tulco, a holding company that helps businesses in various sectors improve through the deployment of artificial intelligence and other technical advances. He previously served as Chairman and CEO of the film production company Legendary Entertainment, which helped create blockbusters like "Godzilla" and "Jurassic World."
Speaking with Yahoo Finance, Tull praised the NFL for its handling of last season amid COVID-19.
"The league did a really nice job getting through this," he says. "Certainly I will remember it forever. And I really hope we don't have to do it again."
"I don't want to be mistaken for saying that football is something that had to go on," he adds. "But just to provide some level of entertainment and normalcy, I thought was important."