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CBA nuggets: changes in the new agreement and what they mean - expanded playoffs and the 17-game season

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A series of articles including some fact and some opinion for the half-dozen people who care about the details of the labor agreement

As nearly every NFL fan is aware, the NFLPA and the owners negotiated a new agreement this offseason — one that narrowly passed the players vote, and will now control the game of football for the next 11 years. While the minutiae of legal agreements can seem boring, the fine print of this particular document very literally has a huge impact on the NFL, the players, owners and fans. Since we have some time on our hands unencumbered by mini-camps, OTAs or training camps, it seemed like a good time to explore the changes that the new CBA brings, and maybe some interpretation of how it may affect the league going forward.


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CBA nuggets: Changes in the new agreement and what they mean - Roster Size


In this second post of the series, I thought we’d look at expanded playoffs and the eventual 17-game season.

Let me start with my old-man-yells-at-cloud credentials. My own view is that to get into a playoff, a team should have to win its division.

Back in the days when there were three divisions per conference (East, Central, West), I compromised my position to allow for a wildcard team so that each conference would have 4 playoff teams, leading to a sensible playoff format with three rounds and no byes.

That compromise was my first mistake.

In a league made up of 32 teams in eight divisions across two conferences like today’s NFL, the only sensible playoff format is 8 division winners in a three-round playoff with no wildcard teams and no byes. In that format, the regular season is part of the playoffs; teams play to win their division so they can get a ticket to the dance.

Amazingly, some people would prefer to do away with playoff seedings based on division champions having the advantage over wildcard teams. That’s just fatuous new-wave thinking aimed at destroying the fabric of the universe and watering down the value of divisional rivalries that largely drive the popularity of the NFL. Who watches 32 teams? Most fans watch one, and care about four, and that’s how it should be.

Okay. I realize I’m the only person on planet earth who doesn’t approve of wildcard teams and bye weeks, but I’m still a little shocked that some people have the notion that two teams per conference earning bye weeks is part of God’s plan, and that anything that screws with that is blasphemy and creates unfair advantage. Still, I’ve seen it in print (not in so many words) in the past several months.

The silly, mathematically imperfect system of 6 teams per conference that I despise has actually been seen by many as somehow “perfect”. Consider this opening to a recent Sports Illustrated article:

The NFL’s playoff format was largely considered one of the best in sports. The number of teams was ideal. Those with the best records were rewarded with byes and matchups against the lowest seeds. Upsets were inevitable, but generally, the champion the bracket produced was deserving and representative of its true superiority over the rest of the league. Beyond some issues with seeding, the NFL’s playoff format was perfect.

The idea that the playoff system that had been in place for about three decades was perfect seems laughable to me, but people are comfortable with what they know, I guess.

Well, if you liked the “old” system, prepare to get uncomfortable.

For me, the way to improve the system would have been to do away with the wildcard slots and eliminate bye weeks, but the NFL went the other way, choosing to expand the playoffs — effective this season — though the effect is to reduce the number of teams with first-week byes from two per conference to just one.

So, how will these expanded playoffs work?

To answer that question, I’m gonna copy and paste from the same Sports Illustrated article that I quoted a few paragraphs back.

The new format will add one team to the playoff field in both the AFC and the NFC, making it a 14-team postseason (seven teams per conference) rather than the prior 12-team format.

As ESPN noted, had the new playoff format been in place in 2019, the Steelers would have reached the AFC playoffs, and the Rams would have been included in the NFC field.

Here is how last season’s playoff bracket would have looked under the new format, assuming the NFL’s current seeding tactics (four division winners get top four seeds) remain in place.

AFC

Seed / Team

1. Ravens (first-round bye)

2. Chiefs

3. Patriots

4. Texans

5. Bills

6. Titans

7. Steelers

NFC

Seed / Team

1. 49ers (first-round bye)

2. Packers

3. Saints

4. Eagles

5. Seahawks

6. Vikings

7. Rams

What are the features of this new format?

Playoff bye weeks

Aside from watering down the competition and letting in yet another two teams that had mediocre seasons, here are the main features:

Each conference will have only one team with a bye week instead of two. Given that the bye week is seen as a competitive advantage, this swings the odds more strongly in favor of the team that finishes the regular season with the best record, even as it creates more largely unsupported hope to fans of .500 teams that their team can get into the playoffs and somehow “make some noise” despite having lost around half of their regular season contests.

Wildcard Weekend and $$$$$

If you want to know why the NFL and NFLPA agreed to further bastardize the playoff system, you need look no further than this point.

Wildcard Weekend will expand from 4 games to 6 games, with the three wildcard teams per conference all traveling to play division winners.

Players on every playoff team get a paycheck that weekend (including those that are on a bye, sitting at home watching the other teams play).

Two more stadia will be full of screaming fans buying peanuts, hot dogs and beer and paying for parking.

Six (or more) hours of network television will be added, with its attendant advertising revenue — all of which goes into the revenue pot that is split not-quite equally between the owners and players, meaning more jobs, more pay, and more profit.

Is there any doubt that the next CBA will see a further expansion of the playoffs, eliminating that last remaining bye week? Why miss out on a revenue-generating opportunity when it’s possible for half the league to participate in the single-elimination tournament?

More exciting regular season finishes involving more teams

With two more teams in the playoffs, there are likely to be 4 to 6 additional fan bases with playoff hopes going into Week 17. Keeping a half-dozen more fan bases invested in the season for another week is no mean accomplishment that is likely good for fans and the financial well-being of the NFL at the same time.

There may be a slight offset in a team or two potentially losing the motivation connected to the 2nd playoff bye in each conference, but that is a small, and by no means certain loss.

The 17-game schedule

While a reasonable person can argue that there is merit in playoff expansion, the other change wrought by the CBA, and often discussed in conjunction — the looming 17-game schedule — represents a pure money-grab by the NFL and associated parties. Aside from money, there is simply no strong argument in favor of adding a 17th regular season game, and the insistence of owners that it was a non-negotiable item in the 2020 CBA put the agreement in jeopardy, as it was a provision that was opposed by many players, disliked by the NFLPA, and not even universally popular with fans.

The 16-game schedule holds a lot of appeal. It allows for 6 intra-division games per season, 6 non-divison conference games, and 4 non-conference games. The schedule is easy to project for years, with only two games per season being dependent on the records of the teams involved. Mathematically, it works out that every team plays 16 games per year, with 4 games coming against previous year division winners, 4 against second-place teams, 4 versus third-place teams, and 4 against last-place teams. This symmetry is appealing and fair.

Of course, having an equal number of home and away games is seen as part of the competitive balance of the league as well, but that will be lost. Owners, of course, initially wanted an 18-game season to maintain this element, but the NFLPA apparently wasn’t going to budge on that, so the home-away balance looms as an issue.

Regular Season Games Played Outside of the United States

One opportunity that presented itself was to marry the international series (games in London and Mexicao City) as neutral sites to the odd-game. There was even some talk of adding some other neutral site games to round out the schedule, perhaps playing in some cities like San Diego or St. Louis for some matchups.

The CBA has language that links the expansion to a 17-game season and the international series in Section 5 of Article 32:

Section 5. Regular Season Games Played Outside of the United States:

(a) In any League Year in which the NFL regular season consists of seventeen games, the extra week shall not consist entirely of international games.

(b) Through the 2025 season, no more than ten regular season international games will be played each season unless a Club is displaced from its existing stadium due to damage, other force majeure events, construction or renovation.

(c) Prior to the start of the 2025 regular season, the parties will meet and confer regarding whether to increase the maximum number of International Games in any single regular season to more than ten (10) games in 2025 or subsequent years. Such decision may be based on underlying business justifications, including but not limited to growth in AR, club and player brand development, media and related opportunities, as well as player working conditions, health and safety, burdens on player families, insurance,

You can see that the NFLPA is very concerned about the impact of international games on players. It is just as obvious that owners are committed to international expansion eventually — enough so that they were only willing to commit to the status quo for six more seasons.

As a bit of an aside, the CBA also stipulates that every player who has to play in two international games receives an extra stipend of $5,000 per game above and beyond all other benefits, paid as a player benefit (meaning it isn’t charged to the team’s salary cap).

(e) If any Club travels outside of North America to play a game more than once in a single regular season, any player on that Club who travels outside of North America for such games, will be paid a stipend of $5,000 for each game, beginning with the second such game. This $5,000 stipend shall be in addition to all other compensation (including per diems), which he is entitled to receive for those games. This stipend will be considered a player benefit cost.

There is also language in this section of the CBA that strongly indicates that no team will be expected to play more than 3 international games in a season, though it is not a strict prohibition.

Of course, we’ve heard this week that the 2020 slate of international games has been scrapped in light of the global pandemic, so that particular feature of the NFL schedule won’t be in place in 2020.

But then, neither will the 17-game schedule.

Expanding the schedule to 17 games

If the NFL plays a regular season schedule this year, it will be no more than a 16-game schedule, and, due to the potential impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it could be fewer.

The 2020 CBA certainly anticipates a 17-game schedule as soon as 2021 in Article 12, which deals with league revenue.

The contracts (or portions thereof) for television rights ... for the telecast or broadcast of live or near-live transmission of ... NFL games [shall be] substantially similar in scope to such rights for up to a 17-game season in the contracts from which the Current Average described above is derived. The same allocations ... will apply to the determination of the value of the New Media Contracts. The NFL has committed to negotiate at least one New Media Contract for the 2021 League Year should the NFL elect to have a seventeen-game regular season in the 2021 League Year.

But it is Article 31 that deals quite specifically with the issue of adding regular season games:

ARTICLE 31 ADDITIONAL REGULAR SEASON GAMES

(a) The League and/or Clubs shall have the discretion to increase the number of regular season games per Club from sixteen (16) to seventeen (17) (but not more), provided that the combined total of preseason and regular season games played per Club shall not exceed twenty (20) games. The League and/or Clubs shall not increase the number of regular season games per Club to eighteen (18) or more games.

(b) In any League Year in which the League and/or Clubs elect to increase the number of regular season games per Club to seventeen (17), the following amendments to this Agreement, including its appendices, shall automatically become effective on the first day of such League Year.

This allows the league to add one more game per season, and that can happen as early as 2021, but could also be delayed until a subsequent season.

You can see that the combination of regular season and pre-season games can’t exceed 20 in total, meaning that a 17th game limits the preseason to no more than three games.

Also, the article specifically prohibits the league from expanding the season beyond 17 games during the life of this agreement, and it makes provisions for players under contract prior to the addition of the 17th game to get paid the same salary for the extra game that they are paid for the 16 they get paid for currently.

Not only will the players get paid for more weeks, but under the new CBA, the players will get more money overall for salary cap and benefits. The language stretches across a dozen or so pages of the labor agreement and is very complex, but it boils down to this:

In an effort to convince the players to agree to a 17-game schedule, owners agreed as part of the 2020 CBA to increase the players’ revenue share from 47% under the prior (2011) deal to 48% share at 16 games under the new CBA, and then to a 48.5% share if they go to 17 games. When you are splitting a pie that, in 2019 was approximately $15 billion, getting an extra percent or percent-and-a-half is very significant. When you consider the revenue bump that comes along with the extra game, pretty soon you’re talking about serious dough.

Mo’ money, mo’ money, mo’ money.

Other considerations

There’s not a lot of language in the CBA defining exactly how a 17-game schedule will work. That will happen outside of the CBA, likely through consultation between the NFL, NFLPA and broadcasters.

For example, it was reported during the negotiation of the CBA that one possibility being explored was the addition of a 2nd bye week along with the addition of the extra game. To me, this seemed like a ‘win-win-win’ for players, owners and networks, given that it would provide a week of needed rest for players, and add not one, but two additional weekends of football to the broadcast schedule, as the season would expand from 17 weeks to 19 week to accommodate seventeen games plus two byes for each team. However, this was reportedly nixed by the broadcasters, who felt that it watered down their opportunity to present appealing matchups ever week, so the proposal for a second bye week was scrapped.

As mentioned above, the home-away balance is a competitive issue that will apparently be handled by alternating seasons with 8 or 9 home games.

Since we won’t have a 17-game season in 2020, I won’t dwell on the details of season construction or associated issues beyond mentioning the primary concern beyond those already mentioned.

The leading argument against regular season expansion - player health and safety

The NFL and NFLPA have faced increasing concerns over player safety, especially in recent years as issues with concussions and CTE have been highlighted.

Furthermore, in a league where players have become bigger and faster, training harder and putting ever more strain on their bodies, the rigors of a full season take a huge toll on the players. December rosters for many teams do not much resemble those from early September, and playoff teams are often determined by which ones manage to reach the end of the grueling road with the lowest attrition.

Adding a seventeenth game seems to run counter to these concerns for player safety and health and seem destined to increase the number of injuries inflicted on players each year, and may well shorten some careers through the cumulative stress that one more game per season will add.

As you can see, I’m not a fan of NFL expansion with regard to playoffs or regular season play. Unlike the roster expansion that is also defined in the 2020 CBA document, these two moves look to be driven more by the love of money than love of the game.