The league expects to make $25bn a year by 2027. And its plans to get there show little regard for players, fans or broadcasters
Even in the deeply cynical world of pro football, the NFLs latest plot to expand to an 18-game schedule rings as a blatant cash grab at the expense of its fans, broadcast partners and the health of its players.
The recent proposal is as brazen as it is foolish. In short: the league has pitched an idea to host an 18-game season but limit the number of individual games each player can play to 16. Yes. You read that right. The league wants to hold a competitive, multi-billion-dollar competition that would see its best, most marketable players miss 12% of the season.
When ego and greed collide, this is the kind of nonsense you get. The wackadoodle idea stems from the leagues commissioner, Roger Goodell, representing the NFLs 32 owners. When Goodell announced to the world that he expected the NFLs revenue to balloon past $25bn by 2027, he was banking on the leagues schedule expanding.
This, of course, rings as a negotiation ploy. It is collective bargaining season. As things stand, the current deal between the NFLs owners and the NFL Players Association is set to expire after the 2020 schedule.
It is in everyones interest that a deal is concluded swiftly, as league revenue continues to rise. But things will get testy. TV deals are about to expire. Amazon and Facebook will become bidders for full, international rights. Both have geared up for an arms race as they look to steal the most valuable sports property in America away from the traditional networks and cable providers.
Legalized gambling is on the way, too. The owners want an ironclad agreement in place ASAP so they can make further riches. Yet they refuse to offer fully guaranteed contracts to players, curtail the disciplinary power of the commissioner, or invest in a long-term medical/pension plan that could help every player in their post-playing life. We know now more than ever (and we learn more every day) about the dangers of playing football. Yet the league is content to issue its one-time payment to former players which could cost more than $1bn for covering up information related to concussion research and footballs impact on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).
What the league currently offers is so mangled in red tape that it is essentially pointless. The New York Times reports that only $1m has been paid out so far to former players and countless NFL veterans have been shut out of the deal. And thats how the league likes it.
They will, however, have to offer some concessions in the next collective bargaining agreement with players. And so we return to that wonderfully absurd proposal. The subtext to Goodells pitch is this: lets grab the money and benefits of the 18-game schedule while feigning interest in the health of our players by limiting them to the current battery of 16 games. Doesnt everybody win?
Its not going to wash. You cant have integrity in a sports contest that actively takes star players such as Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes off the field for a significant part of the season.
From a marketing standpoint, you could probably cope without other position groups for two games apiece. Even the likes of Aaron Donald, JJ Watt, and Trent Williams, for as much as they impact results and aesthetics, could take a two-game rest without affecting ratings. Take the top quarterbacks off the field, though, and force a national TV audience to sit through a Tom Savage v Blaine Gabbert matchup, and confidence in the league and the ratings that go with it will divebomb. Whether the TV partner is NBC or Facebook, they wont be happy.
The NFLPA has consistently pushed back against an expanded schedule. Sure, it would mean more roster spots, but it would also devalue the contracts of those players already in the league. Overall earnings would boom, but the percentage going to each player would fall. Its easier to divide the big pie 32 ways as owners than it is for potentially 2,400 players if rosters, as projected, were to expand to 75 players per team. Even with the extra bye-week on offer, its not worth it to the top players who move the needle when it comes to collective bargaining.
The league isnt dumb enough to really believe in this idea. Or is it? After all, this is the league that played a quarter of its season with unqualified, high school referees, rather than pay its semi-professional refs a realistic salary. And these are also the marketing whizzes who came up with the creative plan of branding one of the most marketable stars in all of sports, Tom Brady, as a cheat, without sufficient evidence.
The NBA is continually looking at legislation that gets its star players onto the court. The likes of Kawhi Leonard, the reigning finals MVP, have taken to playing 70 of the leagues 82 regular-season games, citing load management as they prepare themselves to be in the best shape possible for the postseason. The NBA knows the cost this has on its relationship with its fans and broadcast partners. Talks to reduce the number of games or levy fines have escalated. The NFLs plan is to go the other way. It wants to limit the amount fans can see stars. Instead, you will have to deal with two weeks of wincing as your backup left tackle spends a couple of games protecting a shoddy quarterback.
Thats the other thing: coaches are too smart. They will remove everybody at once. Either they play their full first offense and second defense one week before flip-flopping the next time around, or theyll pull both first teams at once. Leaving starters in to play with duds while the star players get rest would be vilified as coaching malpractice, particularly if one, inevitably, sustains an injury. Aesthetically, it will look like a preseason game. Financially, the owners will make regular season cash.
Goodells premiership has been a clown show. There have been serious errors. His bundling of the Ray Rice case showcased his hubris on a level that is rare even in the gladiatorial world of sports. Domestic violence is an issue the legal system cant handle properly. Yet somehow this meat shield for 32 rich sports owners thought he could do the job?
Weve had Deflategate. Weve had Bountygate. Weve had Bullygate. Weve had ad hoc rule changes that move with the wind of the moment, not with a long-term vision of what the league should look like in 10, 20, 30 years. Only under Goodell could something as simple as a catch become an impossible-to-define term.
We dont have time to list all the blunders of the Goodell era. But this misstep serves as the perfect microcosm. For the NFL, the bottom line is all that matters. Damn the players, fans, coaches, broadcast partners and anyone else who tries to get in the way of the ever-increasing pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.