NFL Leaders Warm To Longer Season

Injuries during meaningless preseason games, such as the one suffered by the Giants' Osi Umenyiora last Saturday, provide less incentive for owners to expand the regular season than increased revenue.
Injuries during meaningless preseason games, such as the one suffered by the Giants' Osi Umenyiora last Saturday, provide less incentive for owners to expand the regular season than increased revenue. (By Bill Kostroun -- Associated Press)
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By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 28, 2008

The NFL's preseason wraps up over the next two days, with the Washington Redskins and Indianapolis Colts playing their fifth exhibition games and other teams playing their fourth. Those who think the football has been forgettable and the injuries suffered by players unnecessary can take solace in one thing: Most of those in the sport, including Commissioner Roger Goodell, agree.

Sentiment among NFL leaders to reduce the preseason to two or three games per team and lengthen the regular season to 17 or 18 games, up from the current 16, is growing, and it seems generally accepted that such an adjustment likely will be made within the next few years.

"I think it would be a positive," New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft said this week, "and I do think it will happen."

Goodell and the owners already were studying the issue before the defending Super Bowl champions, the New York Giants, lost standout defensive end Osi Umenyiora to a season-ending knee injury in a preseason game against the New York Jets on Saturday night, and before the Redskins had to fret that Jason Taylor's knee injury the same night would end his season. It didn't, but the Redskins didn't know that when his knee was wrenched beneath a pileup of players during Saturday night's game at Carolina.

And while they regret having their product diminished by injuries to players in games that don't count in the regular season standings, the real impetus for Goodell and the owners to act on the issue is economic.

More regular season games would mean more revenue in television rights fees, which are worth about $3.7 billion per season in the current deals with NBC, Fox, CBS, ESPN and DirecTV.

"The players' view can be really simple: If I get paid for two extra games, I'll play two more games," former San Francisco 49ers offensive lineman Randy Cross said. "The fans' view is: More of the real stuff is better. The realistic view is: It's a way to generate more revenues."

That is a key element, with the owners about to negotiate a new labor agreement with the NFL Players Association. The owners exercised a reopener clause in the labor deal in May, making the 2010 season the final one in the agreement. While the union would have to approve an increase in the number of games, the owners believe they could give them an incentive because the players currently receive 60 percent of total league revenues under the salary cap system.

"I know some people will want to pit ownership against players on this issue," Kraft said in a telephone interview. "To me, this is about partnership. For us to be able to extend this labor deal, we're going to have to find a way to grow revenues. Basically, it would be the same preparation for most of the players. What we would be doing is taking entertainment contests and improving them. I think it's something the fans probably want."

Players aren't paid during the preseason; instead, they're paid in 17 installments during the regular season. The owners make big money by charging regular season ticket prices for preseason games, but still could come out ahead if the additional regular season games boost TV rights fees considerably.

The drawbacks to adding games would be diluting the product, and limiting chances for younger players. The small number of regular season games makes each weekend vitally important. Adding too many games could detract from that, but the owners don't seem to fear they're nearing that point yet.

Fewer preseason games, however, would mean fewer opportunities for unheralded young players to prove they deserve roster spots. Kraft called that his only concern, and Cross said it would be particularly detrimental to the development of young quarterbacks. He pointed out that the league already shut down its developmental league for young players in Europe.

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