Call it a hunch, but I'd bet money that in five years, the NFL calendar will be expanded to include 18 regular-season games, with each team playing at least one game overseas, and half of the league's 32 teams making the playoffs every season.
If you think I'm wrong, you need to listen more closely to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell.
The NFL is great, and yet Goodell seems compelled to make it greater, even at the risk of making it worse. At the league's fall meeting in Washington, D.C. this week, Goodell addressed some notable topics, spinning the NFL narrative that with a league already as great as it is, it makes sense to make it greater.
The commissioner's words, via NFL.com:
In my 32 years involved with the NFL…I've never seen the league in a stronger position. Our game is more popular. It is more competitive. It is safer, and you can see how it continues to grow. We have a great foundation to do that, and it is our collective responsibility to take the necessary steps to see that growth.
The job of a commissioner in sports is to make the owners as much money as possible while keeping the players happy, thereby creating a system where everybody inside the game wins, hoping that translates to a winning formula for the fans.
Nowhere in the commissioner's handbook does it say that it is his responsibility—or that of anyone under his stewardship—to take any steps toward growth. When you are as popular as the NFL is in America, growth is not a necessity. Keeping those involved in the game happy—including the fans—is a necessity.
Growth is a project in vanity. Growth is about maintaining control and increasing power. Growth is important for galvanizing the brand—protecting the shield, to borrow a phrase—even if the product suffers in the process.
The 18-Game Schedule
Goodell's comment about the league being safer was certainly in reference to the Frontline documentary League of Denial that aired this week, reporting on the history of brain trauma related to the sport of football, and specifically players in the NFL.
Goodell is right to suggest the game is safer than back in the "rub some dirt on it" days of yore, but no one—not even the commissioner— would admit the game is safe enough.
Why, then, does the league continue to try to expand to more games?
A league spokesman, via email, denied recent rumors about Goodell reintroducing his desire to expand the regular season to 18 games, and yet the rumors persist—in part as a bargaining chip with the Players Association and in part because Goodell has convinced himself that more football means better football.
The reality is that most teams can't even keep their players healthy in a 16-game schedule, so trying to field a competitive team with two additional games is going to be nearly impossible.
The fair compromise to a longer schedule would be to expand the rosters to account for injuries and players who need time off, but adding more players to each roster will only serve to lower the overall quality of play in the league. Still, imagine how much money the NFL could bring in, adding more games that matter to an already-sweet pot of television and media revenue.
The amount of money the league can earn with two additional regular-season weeks is in the hundreds of millions, perhaps only trumped by the amount of money the league would earn by expanding the playoffs.
The Expanded Playoffs
The playoffs will be expanding to 14 teams in 2015. The commissioner wouldn't have said that in his address if he didn't think there was a 100 percent chance of it happening. The question then becomes how long it will take the league to expand to 16 teams—half the league—getting into the postseason.
From NFL.com writer Chris Wesseling's recap of the meetings:
"If expanding the postseason would allow other teams to get into the dance, and they have the potential of going on and winning the Super Bowl," Goodell explained, "that's a good thing for fans, that a good thing competitively."
One possibility for squeezing in extra playoff teams is to reduce the preseason from four weeks to three, although the two issues are not necessarily related. Goodell reiterated that preseason games are not up to NFL standards.
Expanding the postseason while eliminating part of the preseason would be an economic windfall for the league and its players. But expanding both the regular season and the postseason at the expense of preseason play is the end game for the NFL, health and safety be damned.
Grow Baby Grow
Think about Goodell's proposal this week and then re-read the explanation from that NFL.com story on how it would work. In the press conference announcing the idea, Goodell noted he would have to look at how to expand the playoffs from 12 teams to 14 and whether that would mean playing three Wild Card Weekend games on Saturday and three on Sunday, or adding games on Friday and/or Monday night to the existing weekend slate.
In the video clip of his comments that accompanied the NFL.com story, Goodell did not mention shortening the preseason to add a game on each side of the playoff bracket, likely because there would be no need for that if 14 teams were in the playoffs instead of 12.
In fact, even if (read: when) the league expands to 16 playoff teams, there would be no need to take up an additional week of the NFL calendar. And yet, the NFL.com story that accompanied Goodell's comments clearly mentions a possibility of eliminating a preseason game.
Again, it's obvious that opening the discussion to shortening the preseason to create more meaningful football later in the year is the end game for the NFL. Once the Players Association says it's amenable to shortening the preseason to accommodate additional playoff games, it seems rather simple to get the players to acquiesce to the same deal in exchange for an extra week or two of the regular season.
After all, football is good, and the more good football the better.
More, More, More
Goodell is right in his logic that fans don't care if their team is 8-8 or 7-9 if they make the playoffs and have a chance to win a Super Bowl. More teams in the playoffs leads to more teams fighting for the playoffs as the season comes to a close, all of which leads to more interest in more cities for more of the season.
More, more, more. That's the NFL's plan for the future.
That's what the NFL is doing in London, isn't it? What started with one game overseas each year has blossomed to two and now, per Goodell, will become three starting next season. Via NFL.com:
The NFL announced Tuesday that a third regular-season game will be added to the London schedule for the 2014 season. The Jacksonville Jaguars, Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders each will play one home game at Wembley Stadium next year.
Goodell has made it clear he has no plan, currently, to place a team full-time in London, a move that seemed in line with recent renovation plans for Jacksonville's home stadium. The Jaguars were, are and will be the most logical team to move to London full-time if and when it ever happens.
For now, though, the league is happy to rotate teams through London, giving fans overseas a look at more and more NFL teams each year.
There may be an NFL fanbase in London that's dedicated enough to fill Wembley Stadium three times for six different teams, and the league can use those sellouts to boast about the interest in the game across the Atlantic, but the plan to expand the London series is a far cry from sending a team there for good.
In addition to that, keeping a team out of London could actually give the fans overseas more options and, potentially, more games.
Each NFL city gets eight home games a year, outside of preseason and playoff games, but by sending different teams to London for the games overseas, the NFL is not beholden to just eight games in that city.
What's stopping the NFL from putting one game in London every week of the season?
Currently, the league calendar accounts for 17 weeks to play 16 games, and with 32 teams in the league, it wouldn't be difficult to schedule a game in London every single week of the season until the last, giving each team that travels across the Atlantic a bye week following its trek.
And let's not limit the games just to London, by the way. There's Toronto, or Mexico City, or Hawaii—it would be easy to replace the Pro Bowl with one or two regular-season games—or even Japan. Fun fact: The distance from San Francisco to Toyko is roughly 200 miles shorter than the trip from San Francisco to London the 49ers will have to make in late October to play Jacksonville at Wembley Stadium.
Why not Dubai? It's only 1,300 miles farther from Boston to Dubai than it is from San Francisco to London. That's roughly the distance the Patriots travel to Miami for a division game every year.
Why not anywhere on the planet? If the players can handle nearly 10,000 miles of travel to play one football game, what's another few thousand, round trip?
After all, growth is good.
The Expanded NFL Calendar
If (read: when) the league expands to an 18-game regular season, the prevailing sentiment is the players would push for a second bye week to account for the extra wear and tear on the body, pushing the league calendar to 20 regular-season weeks from the current 17-week schedule. The second bye week could easily coincide with each team's trip overseas.
Where would the extra week come from? The preseason.
The current NFL calendar accounts for four preseason games spread over five weeks, plus 16 regular-season games spread over 17 weeks, giving each franchise 20 games over 22 weeks heading into the playoffs.
In today's NFL, 12 teams have a chance at the Super Bowl, with eight being asked to play four additional games over five weeks to win the title and four receiving a first-round bye, giving them three games to bring home the Lombardi Trophy.
The current NFL schedule from start to finish features 23 or 24 games over 27 weeks of the year. It's obvious to anyone paying close enough attention that the NFL is working on a plan—by adding a few playoff teams and dropping hints about a shorter preseason—to maintain a 24-game calendar, adding just one week to the league year.
The extra week—pushing the league from 27 weeks to 28—would be a bye week, meaning the only substantial difference between the current system and Goodell's system would be more football that matters.
Fans and players have both talked to the commissioner about shortening the preseason, but if the fans are paying for those games, there is no way the NFL is going to close that spigot. They'll just make what's coming out taste a little better.
A Master Plan
It's brilliant, in a way.
Just like going from a handful of late-season Thursday night games to a full season's worth of games was brilliant on the part of the NFL, increasing the profile and demand for its NFL Network to be placed on every cable carrier's most accessible plans. It's just all a little too much at once, especially in a cultural climate that seems more concerned than ever about player health and safety.
Goodell is driven by his self-propelled responsibility to make the game better by growing it, when it's clear to most people from the outside that getting bigger doesn't actually make something better.
It could, in fact, make it worse.
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