The end of the 2021–2022 NFL regular season marks the completion of the league’s first ever 17-game schedule. After 43 years of a 17-week regular season that involved each team playing 16 games, the reformed schedule now features an 18-week regular season that still includes a singular bye week per team.
The development allowed for 16 additional games in which half of the NFL teams played an added home game. The league decided to create an alternating schedule. This season, the American Football Conference hosted the home games for the additional week, while next season they will be hosted by the National Football Conference. The preseason, which formerly consisted of four games, was now reduced to three games to accommodate the 18th week. The playoffs and the Super Bowl are also now being held a week later.
There have been an awful lot of adjustments made throughout the league to adapt to the new regular season schedule. This was all made possible through a collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — the league signed multi-billion dollar media distribution deals with a variety of media companies such as CBS and Fox.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was enthusiastic about this year’s changes, saying in a statement, “The CBA with the players and the recently completed media agreements provide the foundation for us to enhance the quality of the NFL experience for our fans. And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.”
The growth of the game may be substantially emphasized this year due to the plummet in the leagues’ revenue in 2020 because of capacity limits as a result of COVID-19. In contrast to the NFL’s steady growth of yearly revenue over the last 19 years, there was a 3.06 billion USD decrease from 2019–2020 — the league only generated 12.2 billion USD in revenue.
With the new media deals, after the completion of the current season, the NFL is expected to generate far more than 15 billion USD in revenue. The players’ share of the revenue will increase from 47 per cent to approximately 48.5 per cent from the TV deals.
So if the monetary benefits from this change and the increase in fan morale all seem favourable, why is it so highly disputed? When it was first introduced, in contrast to the commissioner’s eagerness, tensions among players and executives arose. Among those who have openly disagreed with the 17-game season are some of the most prominent, active players in the league — such as the Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback Aaron Rodgers — and influential voices, including player representatives on the union’s executive committee — such as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ cornerback Richard Sherman and the Carolina Panthers’ offensive tackle Russell Okung.
Other players voiced their disapproval of the new schedule on Twitter. “17 games is complete BS,” tweeted Denver Broncos safety Kareem Jackson. “Shit dumb… as hell…” New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara tweeted after hearing the news on the updated schedule.
To players, the risk is not worth the reward. When every team plays 17 games, it would be unlikely for a team to have an even record. The most common way a team will now be able to prevent a losing record is with a tied game, resulting in an 8–8–1 record. The extra home game advantage for only one conference also contributes to a win or loss on the record.
A team’s record is crucial when deciding who clinches a playoff spot and how the team will be ‘seeded’ for the playoffs. Depending on the division standing, the better a team’s record, the lower their seed. The lower the seed, the greater the advantage they have in the playoffs.
Having one fewer preseason game just does not make up for the addition of a regular season game. Many first-string players do not start in the preseason to avoid getting unnecessarily injured, and so newer, unproven players can be evaluated. For example, this year, the Los Angeles Chargers’ rookie quarterback Justin Herbert, although healthy, sat out the preseason.
An additional game each season also means one more possibility for players to get injured. A player’s chances of injury have now increased, and there is not a great enough incentive to warrant it. Plus, owners proposed a pay cap for the extra regular season game of 250,000 USD, which would mean many high performing players would be taking a pay cut compared to the other regular season games.
While this year’s regular season has been a success, the NFL will need to consider amending safety protocols moving forward, especially if the league decides to create an additional week to revert to a symmetrical schedule later on.