The NFL has wanted an 18-game regular season for a long time. Last year’s opening of the floodgates for state-by-state legalized gambling served only to enhance the league’s determination to give fans more football to consume — and bettors more football on which to wager.
Throw in the possibility of bumping the calendar by enough weeks to put the Super Bowl on President’s Day weekend, and it’s no surprise that an expanded season will be in play during the negotiations for a new labor deal.
But that doesn’t mean it will happen.
“I don’t think our position’s changed,” NFLPA president Eric Winston told Dan Patrick last August, regarding the prospect of two extra regular-season games. “[Players] don’t see the positive tradeoff, the guys don’t see it as something that is good for their careers, good for their bodies.”
And the lure of more money to share via the salary cap won’t be enough, standing alone, to get the players to bite.
“[The] cap is going to get tilted heavily to the star players.” Winston said at the time. “The people that I’ve talked to on how that money could be spread, wouldn’t go to your role players, your middle-of-the-road guys.”
Then there’s the ever-present safety angle.
“Let’s look at it from a common sense standpoint,” Winston said. “Does anybody think playing two more games is safer for players?”
The league had been trying to set the stage for more regular-season games through Commissioner Roger Goodell’s periodic assaults on the quality of preseason games, laying the foundation for a seemingly easy shift of the current 20-game slate from 16 and four to 18 and two. Once it became clear that the union wasn’t interested, Goodell coincidentally (or not) stopped badmouthing the quality of preseason play.
That doesn’t stop the league from putting the issue in play during CBA talks, but it won’t be easy to turn the league’s longstanding (but in recent years muted) obsession into reality. And it will fall on the league to devise creative, attractive proposals that would get the players to go along with growing the pool of games that count from 256 to 288.
It surely will take more than reducing the Commissioner’s authority to discipline players and/or offering to drop the marijuana prohibition. Whether it’s a larger slice of the revenue pie or a significant bump in the salary floor or expanded rosters or a reduced path to free agency or an elimination of the franchise tag or some combination of those elements (and more), the union knows that the league badly wants to expand the regular season. Thus, the union will (and should) leverage that desire into something substantial.
Some have suggested expansion to 17 games, and maybe a renewed push for 18 games is aimed at setting the stage for an increase by only one.
Also, don’t forget about the lingering musings regarding the adoption of an 18-game schedule with a rule limiting all players to 16 games per year. Some in league circles are fascinated by that possibility. If that’s the only way the NFL can get to 18 games, that may be the eventual formula.
However it plays out, everything is negotiable. Whether the league can negotiate this one to the point where the union will say yes is a different issue, and the union fully understands that, in an industry where ownership holds most of the cards, the players have a very strong hand.