By Ari Rubin
One of the key points of contention in NFL’s collective-bargaining has been the issue of an extended, 18-game season. While owners would like to see the increased revenue of two extra weeks, players worry about the increased risk of injury in an already-dangerous sport. Owners correctly argue that there is no actual increase in number of games played per season, as two of the four preseason games would simply be eliminated. The NFLPA responds that the risk of injury is higher in two regular-season games than two-preseason games, which is also probably true.
What if there were a way to make both parties happy: more revenue and less risk of injury? I believe there is, which is why I propose a 16-game season played over 18 weeks, with each team receiving two bye weeks, instead of one. The league would get an extra week of national media revenue, and the players would get an extra week off while playing the same number of games.
Now, wait a minute. Didn’t the NFL try the two-bye system for a year when I was three years old? (Thank you, Bill Simmons, for reminding me). They did, and after ratings underperformed, the NFL changed it back the following year. But the NFL on television is a different game now than it was in 1993. NFL television ratings are as strong as ever. The league earns roughly $4 billion a year in television revenue, more than 140 percent increase from the early ’90s (taking inflation into account). While most NFL franchises are privately owned and thus do not release financials, a safe guess can be that national media contracts account for roughly 40 percent of a team’s revenue (this is based on the Green Bay Packers financials, who ranked 14th out of 32nd in revenue). The current TV contracts bring in $1.75 billion for nationally televised games (Monday night ESPN and Sunday night NBC games). FOX and CBS contracts for Sunday afternoon games are worth $1.2 billion. In the best-case scenario, an extra week of football would result in an increase of $170 million in revenue.
Whoa, you say. With fewer teams playing per week, wouldn’t the weekly value of television contracts go down? For primetime games on ESPN and NBC, the answer should be no. For regular network games, the answer is a little tricky. For CBS and FOX, the added televised game would come in the form of an out-of-region game, which would occur when the local team has their additional bye. Because of this, the additional Sunday afternoon game would not be worth the same as a locally broadcasted game. In most circumstances, local games would yield higher ratings, which could slightly discount the value of the additional week for FOX and CBS. The only television contract that might not increase in value would be DirectTV’s Sunday Ticket, worth $1 billion, which would offer fewer games per week. However, the added week of games presumably would cover at least the loss of value in the decrease in number of games per week for DirecTV.
What about the quality of games? Wouldn’t they suffer with fewer teams per week? That’s what happened in 1993, according to Simmons. But there are now 32 teams in the NFL, compared to 28 in 1993. Also, with each team receiving two bye weeks, the NFL could start bye weeks earlier in the season and stretch them later without worrying about giving teams an advantageously placed off week (i.e. Week three through Week 16). Under this system, 10 of the bye weeks would have four teams resting, which is the same as the current system, and four of the weeks would have six teams resting.
Note: DirecTV revenue not included in projections
From the players’ perspective, two bye weeks should provide a valuable time to rest in a league where one in three players shows up in an injury report at some point during the season. One could argue that two bye weeks would disrupt the flow of a team, but think of it another way: the extra bye week would reward better coaching and team cohesion. Whether the additional week of pay for players’ salaries would factor into the revenue sharing would remain a bargaining chip. Arguably, the fans would suffer most, having to spend an extra week per season without cheering on their team. But we know from the popularity of fantasy football and related games that fans don’t just watch their favorite teams; they watch their favorite players, football in general, or the point spreads. Besides, with a lockout looming, people will accept missing one week of watching the local boys over missing an entire season. This solution won’t fix the current CBA negotiations, but it’s one painless way of growing the pie that both sides could live with.