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NFL Owners Float Another 18-Game Season Proposal

by Dave Bernreuther

NFL owners dusted off an old talking point in advance of the next CBA negotiations, meaning we should all prepare for two more years of discussion about the possibility of an 18-game season. 

This latest proposal, which is not new, but is seeing official backing for the first time, is to stage an 18-game season with a limit of 16 total games for any player.

There are a number of ways to look at this hare-brained, but still well-reasoned, idea. The first is that it's just the owners overreaching so that they can negotiate something away in the talks without giving up something they really want. The second is that they actually think it's a good idea. And in ways that completely dismiss the opinions of fans, it may actually be; Given that revenues and thus the salary pool would go up substantially without increasing players' workloads, this could be the approach that is most likely to win approval from the NFLPA.

Of course, this completely dismisses the opinions of paying fans, many of whom may revolt if a star player comes from a non-conference opponent (who visits only once every eight years) ends up on one of his two required down weeks, and most of whom just flat out didn't ask for and don't want any more regular season games. If we assume that this schedule expansion will bring with it more neutral-site games, likely in other countries, domestic fans don't benefit from this at all.

The opinions of ordinary fans won't matter, though, if billions of dollars can be made. A two-game expansion could effectively add THREE weeks to the regular season, if another bye week is re-introduced (the NFL tried this for one season in 1993). A 20-game TV package would certainly add a lot more money to the salary pool. 

Still, it's a terrible idea. Forcing players to take weeks off will create far more problems than it solves and open many cans of worms related to logistics and practice rules. (It would also create plenty of new areas for smarter teams like the Patriots to gain an edge with their roster construction, and could also possibly inflate salaries for entire classes of end-of-roster players.) It solves a problem that didn't exist, while ignoring actual issues that do.

As a somewhat stubborn fan of the existing scheduling formula - which is more predictable and equitable than that in any other major sport - my preferred compromise is simple: Keep the schedule as it is, but bring back the second bye week. Pair that week with Thursday Night Football, so that games with only three days' rest are eliminated in favor of a 10-day break followed by a 9-day break. The TNF package would instantly become more valuable due to the enhanced quality of play, while the season would expand by another week to 18, and everything would still make sense.

That solution wouldn't allow for more expansion into new markets, so the idea of adding neutral-site games would persist. If there was an equitable way to set those extra opponents up in the scheduling formula, that's an acceptable compromise as well, even though 17 would be a really weird number of games. One possible solution to that would be to scrap both finish order-based conference games (for example, the 2019 Jets' games against the Jaguars and Raiders) and instead add a second division from the other conference, with a requirement that the neutral site games be against non-conference foes. This idea would still lead to an 18-game schedule, and may ultimately be the best answer for that. But the 16-game limit would likely result in a lot of star players skipping those trips, which brings us right back to why this current proposal is flawed. 

Wherever this negotiation leads, it would presumably come with a reduction in pre-season games from four to two as well, which ostensibly reduce the amount extorted from season ticket holders, making those fans happier. I personally also think is a terrible idea, given their value for talent evaluators, but I also think that's an easy problem to solve, and could go on for days about that. But that's another issue. FO Readers: What do you think would make for an optimal NFL season? 

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10 comments, Last at 15 Jul 2019, 11:07am

1 Hello - Love 18 weeks with…

Hello -

Love 18 weeks with two byes, and all Th games get extra rest both before and after.

And I'd try, if logistics allowed, to break up the season so the first three games a team played were vs. their three div opponents, then ten games vs. the rest of their slate, then the last three are the div opponents again. Would make Sept. all rivalries and "control of the division" and December a kind of seeding and wild card knockout round.


2 Also

Set up all games with >5.5 hours direct flight time (was trying to come up with a good generic rule that wouldn't require games in Toronto to be treated the same as in London) to either have a bye before and Monday Night Football after, or Thursday Night Football before and a bye after.

3 Football demand is still high, football supply still constrained

I don't have a real problem with the impulse to add more games (though in this case my instinct is that the owners are mostly floating this as a negotiating point they can drop later).

I don't pay close attention to it so maybe my impression is wrong, but my general sense is that attendance is mostly holding steady as ticket prices rise, which indicates to me that there is excess demand for football. If you don't expand the supply, prices are likely to continue to rise, which will diminish the broad audience for football and likely eventually cause problems (similar to what happened to boxing in America). That's a long-term concern, to be sure, but I could see it happening.

That said, I think the better solution to this is a second league, and not these weird bolt-ons to the NFL season they keep proposing. But the NFL doesn't seem interested in running one, and I'm not sure anybody else is truly committed to doing one (we'll see how long the XFL gets).

Anyway, to answer the actual question: the change I want to make is to eliminate Thursday Night Football until at least, say, Week 12 (the way it originally was IIRC). Early season TNF just jumbles the NFL week too much for me. For one thing, it is annoying for fantasy football; I used to be able to use Thusday and Friday to contemplate and offer trades, but now you've basically got 2 nights of turnaround before the next week starts, and it just complicates things. And for the other thing, there's a lot going on in September/October (baseball playoffs, college football) and I don't need more sports days. Once the season has gone on a bit and the premier teams have been established, another prime time game is great! But until then, forget it.

4 Inside another PFT link,…

Inside another PFT link, Florio touches on my ultimate idea for compromise:

-Pre-season stays at 4 games
-Regular Season becomes 17 games
-Regular Season has 2 byes
-Each team gets 8 home, 8 away, one neutral site game, likely in another country
-1 or 2 pre-season games each year are ALSO neutral site, at a regional college or similarly smaller facility within that home team's territory

That last point is the big one for the fans because it removes that extortion-like obligation to overpay for two extra games that aren't really games. By moving to a college nearby, you maintain that training-camp like level of exposure to the players, but more importantly you rope in some new fans and those that maybe wouldn't otherwise be able to attend games and make it an event for them and thus attractive even if it's a game where only scrubs play. So you don't lose the evaluation element of those games (which is very important for GMs and scouts) and with a bit of creativity you can form some events that draw in a whole other segment of eager fans. Sure, you might lose some ticket revenue compared to the old way of forcing 10 upon buyers of 8, but...

- gate revenue is still a small portion of overall revenue, relative to TV etc
- let's not kid ourselves, they'd just subtly jack up the price of the other 8 games 12% to cover the one game that is lost anyway
- with a clever idea here and there on how to engage fans and make things more interactive (a la a training camp open practice), you generate a ton of regional good will. Plus who wouldn't have fun at a Saints game in Baton Rouge or a Chargers game at SDSU (errr... uh, I mean...) or a Colts-Bears game in South Bend? Seriously... that Colts-Bears game under touchdown Jesus should absolutely be an August tradition. And surely there are 20 other locations that are just as good.

The only thing about that plan that would stop me - the admitted stubborn curmudgeon - from being fully on-board with it is the answer to the question of "how do we select/program the opponent for that 17th game?" In the article, I mentioned the possibility of adding a second out-of-conference division to the rotation, which works for an 18 game season and doubles the access of, say, Packers fans to Tom Brady at Lambeau, but that doesn't work with 17. So randomizing that would take a bit more creativity. And while the idea of "give everyone a natural rival" sounds nice for TV, it's horribly unfair if that rivalry is lopsided. Imagine being the NFC team that's stuck playing the Patriots every year, for instance. In MLB with their stupid interleague scheduling, at least it's just 3 games of 162. One of 17 is a lot more significant.

But solve that in an equitable way, and I'd be in Mark Murphy's camp and in favor of the 17-gamer.

5 If it were 17 games, then…

If it were 17 games, then you could just readjust the 2 games played in-conference, (against the teams who finished in the same place as you). Turn those 2 games into 3 non-conference games with the same principle of selection. Instead of 12 in-conference vs 4 out, you'd have 10 in-conference vs 7 out. I don't think fans are too hung up on playing teams from their conference too much. Sure we got lots of Brady-Manning games out of this, but you could get lots of Brady-Rodgers games, or Mahomes-Brees - whoever you particularly fancy.
The trickier part would be how to decide the 16 neutral venues. Mexico City can't get their act together. We can't go to London every week can we?

6 Turn those 2 games into 3…

Turn those 2 games into 3 non-conference games with the same principle of selection. Instead of 12 in-conference vs 4 out, you'd have 10 in-conference vs 7 out.

Nice! That'd definitely work too, with the same principle of unbalanced/results-based. It would mess with the conference record tiebreaker a little bit, but solve the "we only see that player once every 8 years" issue. Or at least make it a bit better.

7 Re: If it were 17 games, then…

16 neutral venue games isn't difficult if you're willing to repeat venues. Here's a potential breakdown (Note: This is a strawman argument. There is probably a better venue solution than the one below.):

  • Four games London
  • Four games Honolulu
  • One game Far East (Tokyo, etc)
  • Two games Canada
  • One game Anchorage
  • Four games in CONUS not served by the NFL (e.g., Boise, El Paso, Birmingham). These games could also be in Mexico, Germany, Brazil, etc. 

Make all the games one of those three non-conference of same principle of selection so the regular team rotations for home/away don't change. Sometimes the games would be dogs (e.g, Bengals-Buccs). But they could also schedule matchups like Brady-Brees in Honolulu, Rodgers-Rivers in London, or Mahomes-Newton in Montreal. The Honolulu and Anchorage games could be scheduled for Thursday nights as they would kick off at 3:20 PM local. An extra bye before every Thursday game would also make travel much simpler. 

8 Europe has many stadiums…

Europe has many stadiums that have had football.

Uk already has two (wembly and twickingham).

You can go Amsterdam, Paris and many places in Germany like Dusseldorf, Frankfurt, Berlin or whatever city that just built a new stadium.

You could go to China, Japan, Auatralia...


10 Not so dumb

I don't see why this is so stupid.

"It would also create plenty of new areas for smarter teams like the Patriots to gain an edge" - yes, I know it's the Patriots now, but why shouldn't smarter teams get rewarded?

"possibly inflate salaries for entire classes of end-of-roster players" Again, why is that bad? There will be two weeks of extra revenue to cover it. It will reward depth, and reduce the *relative* value of the stars.

It may reduce the impact of minor injuries, assuming you can count sitting out for a week with an injury as one of your weeks off.

It would add an entirely new strategic aspect of planning what players to sit against which opponents and at what point in the season.

On the downside it will confound the handicapping strategy of virtually every gambler. But on the whole, I don't think it's that outlandishly bad an idea.