The NFL always gets what it wants, even if it takes a little time.
As it relates to the expansion of the season, it took more than a little time. Still, the NFL eventually got what it wanted.
The league wanted more regular-season games for well over a decade, but the push was derailed by the incongruity of its Congressionally-induced sensitivity to brain health in October 2009. The notion that the league was simply sliding the dividing line between preseason and regular-season from four and 16 to somewhere else simply didn’t fly — especially as concussion lawsuits began to pile up in 2011 and 2012.
Commissioner Roger Goodell tried to make his case for an 18-and-two structure indirectly, by repeatedly questioning the quality of preseason games. That never really gained any footing.
Then came the 2020 labor deal. As talks commenced, the league made it clear to the NFL Players Association that the next Collective Bargaining Agreement would be based on a 17-game regular season. Sensing the league’s resolve, the union opted to negotiate the deal on that basis. Otherwise, 2021 would have featured another offseason lockout and another deadline-driven early-August deal in which the players, unwilling to miss games and forego game checks, would have given the owners what they wanted all along, an extra game.
Actually, the players should regard their longstanding resistance to expansion of the season as a partial, albeit temporary, success. The league didn’t want 17 games; it wanted 18. And it still does.
As recently as July 2019, Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked about the “push” for 18 games. In response, he didn’t say, “We don’t want 18 games. We only want 17.” Instead, he explained that the league was talking to the union about restructuring the season.
Around that same time, 17 games first emerged as a viable compromise. That quickly gained traction.
This doesn’t mean the league has abandoned the desire to play 18 games. It means that the league has tabled it, waiting for the right time to renew the effort to slide the needle again, from three and 17 to two and 18. (That’s surely one of the reasons why the NFL has kept the preseason at three games; if they move to two now, they sacrifice part of their future leverage to get to 18.)
The question becomes when will the league get to 18? The next CBA, a decade from now, presents the next cleary opportunity to take an easy-way-or-hard-way stance with the union on 18 games.
But any terms between the parties can be changed at any time. As gambling becomes legalized in more and more states, the extra money to be earned by the league and players will mushroom. It will create the impetus to generate more inventory, for example, in the form of another slate of 16 regular-season games.
So if the league already wanted 18 games before the Supreme Court opened the floodgates for legalized gambling on May 14, 2018, it definitely will want 18 games once the green water begins to cascade.
Whether that happens when the NFL can exercise its right to short-circuit all of the new TV deals at or near the end of the decade or when the next CBA is being hammered out, likely between a new Commissioner and a new NFLPA executive director, it’s coming.
Mark Cuban once said of the NFL, “Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.” But here’s the third part, thanks to this age of legal sports betting: “Boars run wild.”
With 17 games, the rampage begins. It will not stop there.