It’s been 20 years since the NFL realigned teams within its conferences, creating the symmetrical eight four-team divisions split between the AFC and NFC. So, what would it take for a change to happen again?
When getting hypothetical about it, maybe expansion, a new team overseas or even a multi-league promotion/relegating setup like soccer leagues around the world could spark changes in the current structure. But don’t hold your breath.
The economic and competitive pressures that forced the shifting and adding of teams more than two decades ago were a moment in time, not easily replicated. In other words, don’t expect a change in the existing alignment anytime soon.
“As (the late Houston Texans owner) Bob McNair told me some years ago, 32 teams, four per division, four divisions in each of two conferences, is about as geometrically perfect and competitively perfect as possible,” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant, referring to the league’s alignment of eight four-team divisions within two conferences.
And it’s not just the symmetry. There is a core economic difference between now and then. Local gate revenue now gets shared, making a pretty compelling case against clubs hopscotching divisions.
A little history: The NFL began pooling revenues in 1961, a landmark choice that quickly proved prescient and set the league on the road to riches, as sharing made most teams competitive. The most valuable revenue a team pooled was media, but it didn’t stop there. Visiting teams soon got 40 percent of the host club’s gate receipts (it’s actually 33 percent because teams calculate the gate off 85 percent of their revenues, and 40 percent of 85 is 33 percent). This became known as VTS, as in Visiting Team Share of gate revenue.
Nevertheless, over time, the system began to create inequities. Divisions with strong markets like the NFC East were richer because the teams were sharing plum ticket windfalls. The exception in the East was the Arizona Cardinals, which had bounced around from Chicago to St. Louis and then to Phoenix.