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Answering questions about the 17-game season

NFL: JAN 29 Super Bowl LIV - Commissioners Press Conference Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

IF you hadn’t heard, the NFL is expanding the regular season to 17 games

For the first time in 43 years, the NFL is expanding its regular season.

League owners voted this week to approve a 17-game regular season schedule starting with the 2021 season, while reducing the preseason to three games. It’s news of a sort, but it had been widely anticipated. It was made possible through the negotiation of the latest CBA agreement, which was ratified just about a year ago, and it was given financial impetus by the financial impact of COVID-19 on the league revenues in 2020. While many analysts and owners would argue that the owners could have unilaterally expanded the regular season without agreement from the players, any contentious labor battles or legal issues were avoided by including the provision for the expanded season in the most recent CBA.

The soonest that the document allowed the regular season expansion to take place was in 2021. At the time the labor agreement was being finalized, many observers suggested that the league might wait until 2022 or 23 before expanding the schedule, but the global pandemic of the last year ended any thought of moving forward slowly, and now the NFL is taking a giant step from which it is unlikely to retreat.

In fact, having now agreed to expand the playoffs last year and the regular season next year, one has to imagine that the owners will be pushing the envelope in even more areas in the coming years, including sports betting and international expansion of what is essentially an American game.

Let’s look at a few questions raised by the move to a 17-game season.

Will the owners now try to move to 18 games?

Not in the lifetime of this CBA, which runs for another ten years.

The players agreed last March to expand the regular season, but only by one game. The owners cannot push for 18 games until the CBA expires after the 2030 season. As mentioned above, I think they will focus on tapping into revenue streams from expanding sports betting in the interim. I also believe that the league will spend the next decade trying to improve its understanding of how to monetize emerging digital broadcast technologies that are gaining increasing relevance and importance relative to traditional broadcast TV.

So will the season start earlier?

No, but there will be two changes. The first is that, this year at least, there will be a “bye” week between the end of the 3-game preseason and the opening weekend of games. Secondly, the Super Bowl will be pushed back a week into mid-February.

The NFL will still kick off with Thursday Night Football on Sept. 9, 2021, but move back the end of the season (now Week 18) to Sunday, 9 January 9 2022.

This season’s Super Bowl is scheduled for 13 February 2022 in Los Angeles. I’ve seen it reported at least once that in future years, it seems as if the NFL will aim to hold the Super Bowl on the weekend of Presidents Day in order to allow fans to sleep in on Monday morning following super bowl parties.

How will opponents be determined?

In a manner similar to other current scheduling practices, the added game will be against an opponent in the “other” conference (ie. it will be an AFC-NFC matchup). This will happen on a rotational basis. For many years now, each division in the NFC has been matched up annually against an AFC division, rotating annually on a 4 year cycle. That rotation involves every team in the two divisions (one NFC, one AFC) playing each other, so it represented 4 games annually on each team’s schedule.

Now, each division will match up against a different division in the opposing conference, but it will add only one game annually to each team’s schedule. The matchup will be determined like the intra-conference matchups have been for many years now — it will be based on the final standings inside the division from the previous year. That means that the two first-place teams are matched up, the two second-place teams play one another, and so on.

For 2021, the 17th game matchup for each team will be against a team in the opposing conference that is the same as the AFC-NFC matchups from 2019 — for the NFC East, that means matchups against the AFC East, and since Washington and Buffalo both finished in first place in 2020, they will face each other in 2021.

So, will the 17th game be played in Week 18?

Schedules will be put together following the same basic process that has been used for decades now in the NFL — it will simply cover 17 games instead of 16. The season will probably see most teams play primarily within their own division in the first month and final month of the season, with the intra-conference games likely to dominate the middle of the season schedule.

How will the NFL balance home-away competitive balance with an odd number of games?

The home-away balance will arguably be maintained over two seasons, and all teams in a given division or conference will have the same number of home/away games, so there shouldn’t be much erosion of competitive balance.

With the expansion of the international series in recent years, the NFL had already created some cracks in the home-away balance; this move simply breaks down the principle a little further.

What does this mean for international games?

International games form part of the arrangement, but the application of the provisions are delayed for a year (probably due to COVID concerns).

As the NFL’s news release stated, “(T)he enhanced season will ensure that beginning in 2022, all 32 clubs will play internationally at least once every eight years.”

The league plans to schedule up to four international games every season, with an emphasis on Canada, Europe, Mexico, South American and the United Kingdom.

Washington’s only international series game was played against the Cincinnati Bengals in London in 2016, ending in a tie when both teams’ kickers were unable to make key field goals kicking on English grass.

Will there be an extra bye week?

No. While that possibility arose during conversations about a 17-game schedule, the teams will still receive only one bye. The 17 games will be played over the course of 18 weeks.

I’m personally shocked that the league didn’t adopt a second bye week as part of this schedule expansion. It seems to provide a win-win by adding an extra week of games (more broadcast revenue) and offers a nod to player safety.

The league, however, announced early on that there would be no second bye week. I still don’t understand their reasoning, unless they simply want to avoid playing football in August or March, and even then I really don’t see the point.

Will the players make more money now?

They will, both individually and in aggregate, though there are some qualifications that apply.

Firstly, the added week means increased revenue, and since the league works on a revenue sharing system between players and owners, the extra revenue from the added game expands the salary cap, though that effect won’t wash through until 2022 since salary cap calculations are largely based on previous year revenue. Going forward, there will not be any special provisions for the 17th game; it will simply be assumed to be part of the agreement between parties.

However, to make sure players in 2021 weren’t forced to play more without getting paid more, the new CBA contains provisions to increase players’ salaries, but it doesn’t apply universally.

A player who is earning more than the league minimum will receive an extra game check as long as he’s on the roster (including IR) for the 17th game. The extra payment will be equal to the per-game compensation for the first 16 games (which is referred to as “Paragraph 5 salary” in the CBA).

But this only applies to players who signed new contracts before last February, when it became clear the 17 games would be part of the league’s future. The idea here is that players who signed before the new CBA only signed up for 16 games, so they will receive extra checks for the extra work.

This is something to keep in mind when evaluating the value of contracts like the franchise tag just signed by Brandon Scherff (and, indeed, any veteran signed this off-season); those players will be playing a season that is 6.25% longer, and contracts signed before February last year will automatically increase, while this season’s new contracts will not. (Note: I’m not saying it’s a big deal on high-dollar contracts; I’m just pointing out that it’s a consideration that has been overlooked by most people).

For those who like to read source material, here’s some of the relevant language from the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA):

Additional Game Check

Beginning in the 2021 League Year, for the duration of this Agreement only, in any League Year in which seventeen regular season games are played, any player ... shall be eligible to receive an Additional Game Check subject to the following terms and conditions:

(i) the player’s contract that specified Paragraph 5 Salary in the 2021 League Year or any subsequent League Year that exceeded the Minimum Salary for a player on the Club’s Active/Inactive List with such player’s own number of Credited Seasons was executed prior to February 26, 2020 (“First Contract”);

(ii) the First Contract was not renegotiated and/or extended after such date, unless the renegotiation (and any subsequent renegotiation) was for the sole purpose of

(1) converting any portion of a player’s Paragraph 5 Salary and/or Roster Bonus amounts set forth in the player’s NFL Player Contract into Signing Bonus (“Conversion”), provided that

(A) the original term of the First Contract is not augmented, reduced and/or extended in any way (including, but not limited to, by means of new void and/or option provisions), unless the augmentation is the result of a provision stating that a specified contract year or years shall void automatically upon a specified day or date or upon the achievement of a roster condition with no additional contingencies (“Automatic Voidable Year”), and, upon achievement of such void provision, the original term of the First Contract remains unchanged;

(B) the applicable Paragraph 5 Salary and/or Roster Bonus amounts are reduced on a dollar-for-dollar basis by an amount equal to the resulting Signing Bonus;

(C) all other compensation terms remain unchanged; and

(D) no Salary guarantees were added to the renegotiated contract (except for the portion of the player’s Paragraph 5 Salary and/or Roster Bonus that was converted into Signing Bonus); and/or

(2) adding non-compensation provision(s) to the NFL Player Contract that did not affect the original term and/or total compensation provided for in the First Contract (e.g., insurance clause), provided that no Salary guarantees were added to the renegotiated contract;

(iii) the player was on the Club’s Active/Inactive List or Reserve/Injured List for the seventeenth game of that season, or the Club terminates the player’s contract prior to the seventeenth game of that season and

(1) the player is eligible to claim Termination Pay under that contract;
(2) the player’s Paragraph 5 Salary in that League Year was guaranteed in whole (i.e., a guarantee that is applicable to all 18 weeks of the regular season during a season in which 17 regular season games are played) and he was terminated for a reason covered by the terms of that guarantee.