NFL owners working to implement 17-game schedule for 2021 season

The NFL and team owners are attempting to complete arrangements to put a 17-game regular season into effect beginning with the 2021 season, probably accompanied by a three-game preseason.

The deliberations about when to implement the 17-game season are tied in part to the completion of new broadcasting contracts with the television networks, according to people familiar with the planning of owners and the league. It’s not certain that the longer regular season will take effect this fall, but that’s what owners appear to be targeting, with the corresponding preseason reduction.

“I don’t think anything is definite, but I think it will be 17 and three,” one of those people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the NFL has not given a precise timetable about when the 17-game season will take effect.

The collective bargaining agreement between the league and the NFL Players Association ratified in March authorizes the owners to implement a 17-game regular season as soon as 2021 but does not specify an exact starting date.

The NFLPA secured financial concessions from the owners in exchange for the season being lengthened from 16 to 17 games per team. It has been widely expected that the owners will put the 17-game season into effect in 2021, thus wasting no time in capitalizing on the revenue-enhancing opportunity that comes with a longer regular season.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at his annual Super Bowl week news conference this month that “there’s still more work to be done” on implementing the 17-game season.

Owners voted in December to ratify a scheduling formula for a 17-game season. The 17th game would be an out-of-conference game based on teams’ order of finish within their divisions the previous season. NFC and AFC teams are expected to alternate annually between having nine home games in a season vs. eight home games.

The league also has not specified how long the preseason will be if the switch to a 17-game regular season is made. A three-game preseason would keep the total number of preseason and regular season games at 20 per team.

There has been speculation about a two-game preseason. Last year’s preseason was eliminated entirely as the sport operated amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The sport’s new TV contracts, now being negotiated with the networks, are expected to reflect the increased inventory of additional regular season games. Owners and the league are anticipating a significant increase to the rights fees being paid for TV and streaming rights.

The NFL and NFLPA could use that promise of increased revenue from future broadcasting rights fees to smooth over the drop in next season’s salary cap by, in effect, borrowing against future salary caps. The league and the players union have agreed that the salary cap for the 2021 season will be no lower than $180 million per team.

That’s down significantly from the salary cap of $198.2 million per team for the 2020 season. But it’s not as low as it could be, given the steep revenue decline suffered by teams and the league during a pandemic-affected 2020 season in which games were played in empty or partially filled stadiums. The NFL and the NFLPA calculate the salary cap annually based on a percentage of revenue and, under these unique circumstances, have negotiated to keep the decline in the 2021 cap from being significant.

The two sides implemented a revenue-boosting measure by putting an expanded playoff format into effect for the 2020 season. The playoff field was increased from 12 to 14 teams, making two additional opening-round postseason games (after one first-round bye in each conference was eliminated). The expanded playoffs, like the 17-game season, were a part of last year’s CBA.

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