Sweet 17: Breaking Down the NFL’s Decision for an Expanded 17-Game Regular Season
For the first time in NFL history, the regular season will consist of 17 games.
“This is a monumental moment in NFL history,” NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement. “The CBA with the players and the recently completed media agreements provide the foundation for us to enhance the quality of the NFL experience for our fans. And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.”
This expansion from 16 games to 17 does not come as a surprise–it has been a long-anticipated move that the NFL has been considering for quite some time now. The new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that was negotiated last year permits for this extension, and since it is valid through 2030, this new schedule is likely to become the new reality for the NFL moving forward. Even so, it is a monumental moment in the league’s history that has paved the way for new and lasting changes and opportunities for both the league and its players. A 17 game season is not as straightforward as it may seem, so this article aims to break down the specifics for you and provide answers to your most pressing questions.
So when exactly will the season start? And how long will it last?
The 2021 NFL season aims to start at its usual time (COVID permitting), with the Thursday night regular season opener taking place on September 9th, 2021. The addition of a 17th game will cause the season to run longer than usual, with the final Week 18 regular season game expected to be played on January 9th, 2022 and the Super Bowl expected to be played on February 13th, 2022 (one week later than the Super Bowl traditionally is). Each team still only gets one bye week over the 18-week span. So, the season will not start any earlier than usual, but it will run a week later.
What happens to preseason?
The CBA has made it clear that teams are prohibited from playing more than 20 games per season, therefore the preseason will shrink to just three preseason games per team. The only exception to this is for the teams in the Hall of Fame game, who will be allowed to play four preseason games each. Keep in mind that this past season, there was no preseason at all due to COVID, therefore it is not completely far-fetched to say that this number could even be reduced in future seasons.
What if players don’t approve? Can they fight this?
No, what is done is done. The CBA has been approved and put into effect, therefore whether the players like it or not, the agreement gives the league owners the right to expand the regular season to 17 games. Many players are not particularly happy with the expansion, especially given the added physical toll that an extra game puts on their bodies. Players such as Richard Sherman, Alvin Kamara, David Johnson, Darius Slay, and Adrian Amos have voiced their opposition to the added game, among numerous others who cite that it is a risk to health and safety. Even so, a 17 game season is a new reality that players will have to deal with, whether they like it or not. Patrick Mahomes said it best in an interview with Yahoo Finance Presents: “It’ll be different and it’ll be something that we’ll have to adjust to. But it’s something that we had talked about in the collective bargaining agreement. Whatever your beliefs are you got to go out there and adjust, and do whatever you can to be the best football player you can be every single day. I’ll be trying to figure out ways to take care of my body more and more, so you can adjust your body for a 17 game regular season.”
How do the players benefit from this, both in the future and in this upcoming season?
For now, only some players will have the chance for an extra game check to compensate for the physical toll of an added game. The CBA states that any player whose base salary is higher than the minimum number for a player of his service is eligible for this check. Players who signed their contracts after February 26, 2020 will not be able to receive the extra game check because it is assumed that they knew of the 17-game season at this point and agreed to it in the CBA.
The big payoff for players comes later down the line, though. The players’ share of league revenue will increase from 47% to over 48%, depending on how much the new TV deals are worth that the recent media negotiations have instigated. President of the NFLPA and center for the Cleveland Browns JC Tretter shares how players benefit monetarily from this expansion: “You see the substantial increase in minimum salaries, which over 60% of our guys get immediate raises, you see percent greater in revenue share, on top of that you get the media kicker based on these TV deals the NFL just went out and negotiated,” Tretter said. “That percent revenue goes even higher based on how big those TV deals are, so that was part of it. We got better health and safety rules that will continue to change, and we’ve just done a lot of good things in the CBA. So, that was really the crux of the decision guys had: ‘Is there enough in this CBA that makes you willing to play a 17th game?’ In the end, it was a slim margin but more players said yes, that it was worth it and once the NFL negotiated for the right to go to 17, it should’ve been everybody’s expectation that it was going to come.”
New media deals are reportedly valued at more than $100 billion, therefore the payoff is financially significant. This will significantly alleviate the drop in salary cap as a result of COVID-19 and create new revenue that will allow the league to recover from its losses. While some players may disapprove due to risks to health and safety, there is no denying that an added game comes with greater monetary benefits for both the league and its players.
17 games is an odd number of games. How does this work exactly? Won’t some teams get more home games than others?
While players have known for quite some time now who their opponents for the 2021 season would be if they were to have played only 16 games, the addition of a 17th game adds a new opponent to the lineup. League owners voted on a format that would determine who each team would play for their extra game based on division standings from the previous season. By matching each division with a division in the other conference, the league will create a format where the team that finished first in one division will play the team that finished first in the other. For this upcoming season, the NFL plans to match interconference divisions that played each other two years prior, so in the first 17 game season, the matchups will follow the below format:
- AFC East teams will play NFC East teams
- NFC North teams will play AFC West teams
- NFC South teams will play AFC South teams
- NFC West teams will play AFC North teams
This does mean that some teams will get extra home games. An odd number of games does eliminate game symmetry, therefore half of the teams will play nine home games in the regular season and the other half will play nine road games and only eight home games. The league understands this isn’t exactly fair, so they are working on a system in which the number of home games for each conference switches each year, so for example, if AFC teams played nine home games and eight road games in 2021, then NFC teams will get to play nine home games and eight rode games in 2022.
I’m hearing a lot of talk about the “media kicker.” What is that and how does it affect the 17 game season?
Let’s first take a look at the NFL’s most recent media round of media negotiations. Just a few weeks ago, the NFL announced a new 11-year deal with its television partners that begins in 2023 will run through the 2033 season. This monumental deal will allow the league to earn $133 billion, nearly double the amount of the expiring contracts. You can learn more about the new media deal in this press release from NFL.com. It goes without question that these media negotiations will serve as a significant revenue source for years to come and will broaden the league’s digital footprint and audience reach. This deal was important because, under the CBA, the NFL was required to negotiate at least one new media contract in order for the expansion to 17 games to be approved. So it is because of this “media kicker” that the NFL was able to expand the season and offer players more monetary benefits from the increased revenue.
And with that, I hope many of your questions have been answered. Has the game evolved enough to mitigate the strain of an added game? I guess we will soon find out. Nonetheless, the expansion of the NFL regular season from 16 to 17 games is a significant turning point in NFL history that paves the way for future opportunities to continue to grow America’s favorite sport. Don’t forget to drop any questions or comments you have below!