Schedule expansion gaining momentum
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- The NFL expands its regular-season schedule about as often as the Pittsburgh Steelers change head coaches.
Actually, even less.
The NFL has altered its schedule just five times since 1943, a stretch of more than 65 years. And in one of those changes, the league actually reduced the number of games, going from 11 regular-season contests in 1942 to 10 in 1943. NFL officials have tinkered with the schedule only four times since: in 1946, when the league increased from 10 to 11 games; the following season, when the league moved from 11 to 12 games; in 1961, when a 14-game schedule was adopted; and in 1978, when the schedule jumped from 14 games to the current 16.
For more than 30 years, the schedule has remained unaltered. And so, if the league does decide to add games, the schedule augmentation will be regarded as a historic event.
History almost certainly won't be made here this week. According to NFL officials, commissioner Roger Goodell, who initially suggested the notion of growing to 17 or 18 games at the annual league meeting in March, hasn't yet decided if he is ready to subject the increase to a vote by the membership. The smart money is that there is plenty of nose-counting to be done, and assurances that the proposal will pass when brought to the floor, before owners actually vote on the proposal.
Unlike his predecessor, who frequently floated trial balloons, it seems Goodell is almost always serious about successfully carrying through with his ideas.
When league owners convene here for two days this week, Goodell's notion of an increase in the number of regular-season games is on the official agenda for discussion. And you can bet the owners will privately debate the move in the corridors of the beachfront resort where they will gather Tuesday and Wednesday.
I am opposed to playing more games in the regular season. After all, if it ain't broke -- and the league continues to enjoy record in-stadium attendance numbers and lofty television ratings -- why fix it? Plus, there are some major hurdles for the league to overcome before the schedule expands.
Certainly an expansion won't be necessarily for the excitement of the masses, although most ticketholders would welcome a reduction in the number of preseason games. Expanding the schedule probably won't make football, the preeminent professional sport of this or any other time, much more popular in this country. It will, however, increase the owners' coffers, and possibly create globally the kind of passion it evokes in the United States.
And for this commissioner, ultimately accountable to the new-age owners who view the bottom line of the ledger book as every bit as critical as the line of scrimmage, growing the game for his constituency is paramount. Both in terms of football's potential global reach and increased exposure (read: financial advantage) domestically.
The recent buzz-term in the league, "fresh revenue streams," reflects the possibility of increasing exposure overseas, probably the only areas to mine for new money. There are, after all, only so many T-shirts the NFL and its licensees can peddle here at home. Player costs continue to grow at a rate that is alarming to owners. But there is a ceiling of sorts in adding to revenues.
Thus, the push for more games played in new places.
The opponents of change might argue that there is a certain symmetry to the 16-game season, that it has served the NFL well, and that nearly two generations of fans have become accustomed to it. The proponents might contend that, in the ongoing battle for disposable income, you're basically standing still if you're not moving ahead. And since the number of franchises isn't likely to increase any time soon, the most logical areas for growth are in the number of games and the venues in which they are played.
Because owners risk their potential fortunes, or those of their families, in a sport that provides relatively little return on investment, those in favor of the 17- or 18-game schedule will eventually win out.
Before there is an increased schedule, however, the NFL must first deal with some ancillary issues; the league can't unilaterally enact an increase. The two key areas that must be addressed are player salaries and potential for additional injuries. Players will want to be paid for a bump in the number of regular-season games. Toward that end, it is notable that newly elected NFL Players Association executive director DeMaurice Smith will attend the Wednesday session to get acquainted with owners. The players' concerns about injuries seem legitimate. The more games, the more collisions. The more collisions, the enhanced potential for injuries.
Those issues probably will be addressed in negotiations between Goodell and Smith for an extension to the collective bargaining agreement. Despite predictions of a lockout in 2011, both men claim their talks have been productive. But getting the players on board with a 17- or 18-game schedule is key to expanding the regular season.
"We realize that the players are a big part of anything we do," said league vice president Ray Anderson.
Of course, expanding to a 17-game schedule would provide the commissioner and the league an opportunity to play more foreign games. Every franchise would play eight home games and eight away games, and every team would play one game overseas. Goodell has already suggested that a second overseas game, in addition to the one in London, might be played soon.
Goodell seems to have adopted as his major charge maintaining the integrity and the legacy of the NFL. So he has afforded the expanded schedule plenty of consideration in that light.
One vote that certainly will take place here is the selection of a site for Super Bowl XLVII. The regions bidding for the game are South Florida, Phoenix and New Orleans. Given the city's condition, and the travails that Hurricane Katrina has wrought, The Big Easy seems to be the sentimental favorite going in. But as recent votes have indicated, anything is possible for the three championship-game-hosting contenders.
The owners could also vote on a proposal from the powerful competition committee that would impose a five- to seven-day moratorium preceding the start of free agency in the spring. The proposal, aimed at reducing the amount of tampering that usually accompanies the run up to free agency, would allow teams to talk to agents but not directly to players during the moratorium.
The Super Bowl XLVII vote and the proposed moratorium aside, the headline item for these meetings is the discussion of the increased season. Because owners are so fixated on identifying new revenue streams, adding games to the schedule seems to have gotten a groundswell of support.
And at these meetings, it could generate discussion that ultimately leads (probably for the 2011 season) to 17 or 18 games.
Len Pasquarelli, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
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