NFL owners are no longer considering expanding the regular season to 18 games, according to a report Thursday from The Athletic‘s Daniel Kaplan. Instead, ownership is now focused on pushing the regular season to 17 games.
Expanding the regular season has long been a target of the NFL’s ownership class for two intersecting reasons: A) it would reduce the league’s awful, embarrassing preseason and B) it would give the league more inventory to sell to TV networks.
Any change to the regular season would have to be approved by the NFL players’ association and negotiated into the collective bargaining agreement. The current CBA expires after the 2020 season.
The NFLPA has long been resistant to an 18-game season, leading to speculation the league could push a push for a schedule where teams play 18 games but players are limited to 16.
In a rare example of common sense trumping dollars and cents, NFL owners seem to realize such an arrangement would be roundly rejected by its customers. “Quite honestly, that is a hard sell to fans,” Green Bay Packers president Mark Murphy said this summer.
The 17-game compromise, which I first came across via ProFootballTalk‘s Mike Florio way back in 2015, would check a lot of boxes for the NFL:
— As a concession to players (and fans), the league could contract the preseason from four games to two, and use the extra week on the schedule to give each team two off weeks instead of one.
— The second off week could be put to use by further pushing two major NFL agendas that have emerged over the past 10-to-15 years: Thursday night games and international games. The league could give each team one Thursday night game and one international game each season. With two off weeks to play with, perhaps the NFL could construct its schedule in such a way where all (or at least most) teams have one off week before their Thursday night game and another after their international game.
— Giving each team an international game also solves the problem of an odd-number schedule, where half the league gets nine home games and the other half only eight. Instead, all 32 teams would play the same 8 + 8 + 1 schedule.
— Furthermore, the NFL has experimented with playing its London games in the afternoon on UK time — which is 9:30 a.m. in the Eastern time zone. If every team plays in London every season, and all of those games are at 9:30 a.m. ET, this gives the NFL four broadcast windows each Sunday and four “national” games each week — Thursday night, Sunday morning, Sunday night and Monday night. The more “national” windows the NFL has to sell, the more money it can extract from TV networks.
— Really, if every team in the league is playing an international game and each team is off the following week, that international game could be played anywhere in the world. The NFL has already planted its flag in London and Mexico City. What about, say, Australia, or Japan, or Germany, or (current politics aside) Russia?
— Kaplan also mentions the other expansion opportunity on the NFL’s horizon: expanding the playoffs.
The league has toyed with the idea of awarding a third wild card bid in each conference, which would mean only the No. 1 seed in each conference receives a bye to the divisional round.
This plan, if it happens, could affect college football, and here’s why:
Currently, the NFL’s Wild Card weekend consists of four games — Saturday afternoon, Saturday night, Sunday afternoon and Sunday evening.
If the playoffs expand from 12 teams to 14 and from four Wild Card games to six, one of those six games could push to Monday night — which is when the college football national championship is typically played. (This year’s title game isn’t until the Monday after the divisional playoffs due to scheduling issues in the host city of New Orleans.)
This would be a huge problem for college football. Pushing the title game back a week is an issue for a number of reasons — the season is long enough as it is, plenty of schools have started their spring semesters by the second Monday of January, and putting another week in between the CFP semifinals and the title game would kill all the buzz around college football’s biggest game. (This season’s CFP schedule will see the NFL play its Wild Card and Divisional rounds between the semifinals and finals.)
The CFP could move its title game to another night during the first week in January, but that presents its own problems. For instance, the title game could move from Monday night to Tuesday, but that’s an even bigger burden for traveling fans. The game could also move to the other side of the weekend — pushing from Monday night to the proceeding Friday night — but Friday is a bad TV night and that might be too close to the semifinal games, depending on the year. (Playing on Saturday night, head-to-head against an NFL playoff game, is absolute non-starter for ESPN… or any other TV network.)
As you can see, if the NFL expands its playoffs, CFP leadership and their allies in ESPN headquarters would need to keep Wild Card weekend contained to Saturday and Sunday, thus leaving Monday night open for the college game.
Obviously, we’re a long way from any of this becoming a reality. But from where I sit, both the 17-game schedule and an expanded playoffs make too much sense — and cents — not to happen.