For the NFL, Less is More

Photo Credit: Elise Amendola / AP

As the preseason dwindles down and summer recedes into memory, some of you may be surprised to find that your regular season predictions may seem a bit uneven this year. For the first time since 1978, the NFL season has expanded and will now feature 17 games for each team, thanks to the new collective bargaining agreement.

For anyone who has been paying attention, this result may have seemed inevitable. The NFL, like any other business, is always looking to generate more revenue. If the league can add a seventeenth game to its schedule, then of course they’re going to. Another week of regular season games can draw in millions for the league, which may feel even more pronounced now that people can gather in large spaces again. The surreal nightmare of cardboard cut-out fans and artificial crowd noise blaring through stadium speakers is over, something that both regular people and league owners alike can take solace in. If the NFL wants to make more money, and does so by expanding the regular season at an opportune time, then what could possibly be the problem?

The first, and perhaps most glaring of these issues, comes in-regards to player safety. For all of the lip service that the league pays to the issue of actually caring for the players who generate revenue for the owners, it should be fairly obvious to even the casual fan how little the league regards the safety and well-being of its players. Part of this is unavoidable, given the violent nature of the sport itself. I played it at both the rec and high school levels, I can only imagine the violence present at the professional level, which the average player must endure for sixteen weeks or more, depending on if they make it to the post-season.

Given the fact that the union vote on expanding the regular season only passed with 51%, the issue of safety is clearly palpable amongst the players of the league. Richard Sherman, a member of the NFLPA’s executive committee, loudly voiced his displeasure with the idea of adding an additional game to the regular season. “It’s always odd when you hear player safety is (the league’s) biggest concern…They’re really standing up for player safety, player safety, player safety, but it seems like player safety has a price tag. Player safety up to the point of ‘Hey, 17 games makes us this much money, so we really don’t care how safe they are if you’re going to pay us this much money to play another game.’”

I suppose we shall have to wait then for how many star players have their seasons ended early, or potentially even their careers, over the additional wear being added to their bodies. We’ve already seen the early retirements of notable players such as Andrew Luck and Luke Kuechly, how many more will it take before the league notices?

If it were up to me, I’d add an eighteenth week for a different reason: adding a second bye week. Up north, the CFL plays an eighteen-game schedule over the course of twenty-one weeks, with each team having three bye weeks. Even if you’re expanding the regular season, it seems more logical to add a bye week if you’re so committed to player safety. Given the fact that youth participation in football has been declining over the past few years, player safety is something that the league should take more seriously if it is truly concerned about the future of the game. But while the issue of player safety may seem like an obvious argument against the expansion of the regular season, there is also a more salient economic one hiding in plain sight. Simply put, the NFL’s greatest strength lies in its scarcity. The NFL season is 17 games over the course of 18 weeks. That’s one game every week per team, minus the bye, for four months out of the year. Add another month for the playoffs and the total NFL season lasts only five months. Let us compare that with the other major sports leagues in the United States:

MLB – 162 games (8 months) + playoffs (1 month) = 9 months

NBA – 82 games (7 months) + playoffs (2 months) = 9 months

NHL – 82 games (7 months) + playoffs (2 months) = 9 months

MLS – 34 games (8 months) + playoffs (1 month) = 9 months

NFL – 17 games (4 months) + playoffs (1 month) = 5 months

When stacked against the other major sports leagues, the NFL season is miniscule by comparison, and there in it lies its strength. Being such a limited product, it can easily charge higher premiums for the chance to watch its games unfold. It’s simple supply and demand: fewer games means higher prices to go see them, and that’s not even including other factors like TV deals and streaming. The NFL can charge more money to see its games because they’re only going to be around for a limited time, played once per week, with only eight (or nine) chances to see your home team play in your home city.

Economics aside, this quality also extends to the fabric of the regular season itself, as this shorter season also lends the NFL a more competitive stake that the other leagues do not have. Anyone who was watched or played football knows that every game counts, since there is only one game played per week for each team. A loss on any given week can potentially derail a team’s entire season and given the fact that each team only had 16 (now 17) games to work with, there is a very small margin for error. Every week counts, and adding more games, and subsequently more chances for a team to keep their season alive, only further serves to water down the intensity of the regular season. Just last season, the Miami Dolphins finished with a 10-6 record but still couldn’t qualify for the playoffs due to how competitive the AFC was, where lowest seeded teams in the conference all had one more win than they did. In football, every week counts, and I am being quite literal in saying that just one game can make or break a team’s entire season.

But regardless of what anyone may think to the contrary, the die has been cast and the league will be playing a 17-game regular season this year. Player safety and game quality be damned, if they can make a little more with just one extra game then they’re going to do it. However, this may only be a springboard for something that the league has been eying for a long time: an 18-game regular season.

According to Cody Benjamin at CBS, the league may be planning to expand to an 18-game season as early as 2025. An 18-game season is something that the media and fans have speculated about for a while, something that the league may finally be ready to vote on in the near future. If that is the case, then it may serve as a limit for how far the league can realistically expand its regular season, perhaps something along the lines of a 20-week season featuring 18 games and two byes, similar to the schedule format of the CFL.

For now, both fans and the league will have to watch side by side to see how an expanded regular season can play out. But it is the players who will be doing the playing, and their well-being should be taken into consideration first and foremost, even if we all know it realistically won’t.

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