Since the dawn of the Roger Goodell era in 2006, expanding the NFL regular season to 18 games has been the white whale for the league’s ownership and commissioner. The matter has come up for debate every so often in the years since, but it’s when labor contracts are set to expire that the matter gets serious consideration.
In fact, the 2006 collective bargaining agreement had a provision allowing ownership to expand the regular season to 18 games so long as owners provided 90 days' notice and negotiated a deal with the union regarding additional compensation. It was in 2010, with another CBA negotiation impending, that players were presented with the first detailed proposal for an 18-game season. Union opposition to the idea was strong.
The current CBA is set to expire after the 2020 NFL season. Neither side wants to go into that season with an agreement in jeopardy, so next off-season is when dealing begins in earnest. However, the seeds of that showdown are already being sown, and sure enough, the specter of an 18-game season is being raised again. Last week, The Washington Post reported that some owners are interested in either expanding the regular season to 18 games, or adding an extra playoff team to each conference, thereby creating two additional postseason games. In the proposed playoff expansion, only one team in each conference would get a bye. Wild-Card weekend would consist of 12 teams and six games.
Around the same time, the NFLPA circulated a letter to agents advising them to instruct their players to save 50 percent of their earnings in advance of a potential lockout in 2021. If this sounds redolent of the last NFL lockout, that’s in part because each side must appeal to its constituency and prepare for the worst, but also because the league realizes dangling the prospect of 18 games is a useful bargaining chip, whether the realization of it would be good for the sport or not.
More likely than not, and one insider seems to agree, this is preliminary saber-rattling for the larger CBA negotiation to be had. At this point, the owners have such an advantageous position over the players, there’s not that much for them to reach for, and 18 games is the handiest suggestion, whether it’s realistic or even practical. Just by making a demand, they can use the concession of it as a way to pry a demand away from the players union.
After all, expanding the regular season, while surely an opportunity for additional revenue, would potentially serve to exacerbate already existing problems for the league. There’s the risk of further oversaturating and diluting the product, both from an on-field perspective and how much significance any given NFL regular-season game holds. It would also easily lend itself to negative PR, as many would find a push for more games flies in the face for any concern for safety.
But, as any long-time observer of the NFL must know, just because an idea is impractical or unpopular doesn’t mean the league won’t still pursue it. So it behooves anyone involved in the process to treat the matter as a potential reality, just in case.