When NFL owners proposed during the league’s previous set of labor negotiations to cut the preseason and lengthen the regular season from 16 to 18 games per team, players wanted no part of the idea. They called an 18-game regular season unsafe, rejected the proposal and threatened to walk away from the bargaining table if owners continued to pursue the matter.
The league and owners relented, scrapping the measure and saying they never would lengthen the regular season without the players’ approval.
Now, during a new set of negotiations for the next collective bargaining agreement, some owners again want the league to vie for an 18-game season.
Is that still a non-starter for players?
There are some indications that nothing has changed about the players’ stance.
“As far as I’m concerned, the attitude about that is exactly the same as it was the last time around,” said one veteran player with knowledge of the NFLPA’s plans.
It’s clear that an 18-game season is, at best, a tough sell. During the last round of negotiations, players contended that even if the league sacrificed two preseason games to make room for two more regular season ones, the rigors far outweighed the benefits. The NFLPA was proud of the player-safety measures that it secured in the 10-year CBA struck in 2011, with cutbacks on practice-field hitting and restrictions on offseason practices. That would make it unlikely that the union would change course this time.
But some on the players’ side say the NFLPA at least should listen to what the owners might have to say about a longer regular season.
“There’s never anything that’s a non-starter,” agent Peter Schaffer said. “It’s an issue of how clever you can get, how creative you can get, how you can morph the issues.”
Schaffer said he would have player-safety research conducted to see whether it would be feasible to have each team play a 17th regular season game (perhaps at a neutral site) while cutting the preseason in half and also giving each team a second bye week during the regular season. That would provide two additional weekends of regular season games.
“I think you would need to do a study on all of this,” Schaffer said in a phone interview. “I’m all for player safety. At the same time, if there’s a way to increase revenues and maintain the same level of player safety, let’s do it.”
NFLPA executives and Eric Winston, the veteran offensive lineman who serves as the union’s president, did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s early in the process. Two seasons remain on the CBA. Talks are underway, but there’s no indication that the sides have begun to deal in earnest with difficult issues. It’s not even clear yet whether the owners who want an 18-game season will be able to convince other owners and the league to pursue that at the bargaining table.
But there is plenty of incentive for the owners to want an 18-game season. Two additional regular season games could provide a significant revenue boost, particularly in the league’s next set of network TV contracts. The owners’ fallback plan could be to expand the NFL playoffs from 12 to 14 teams, giving the networks two extra first-round postseason games per year. That could be more palatable to the NFLPA. But some owners are intent on pushing for the 18-game regular season first.
More revenue for the league automatically means more money for the players under the salary cap system. There are other concessions the owners could make to attempt to get the players to agree to a longer regular season. Rosters could be expanded, meaning more jobs for players. Another possibility is that each team would play 18 games but each player would be limited to 16 games, adding coaching strategy in terms of which players would sit out which games.
Owners seem willing to make concessions to the union on the commissioner’s authority in player discipline and the league’s marijuana policy, although it’s not clear whether those issues would be linked at the bargaining table to an 18-game season.
There is much to play out. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell already has returned to publicly questioning the need for four preseason games, a possible sign of the league’s intent to pursue a shortened preseason and longer regular season.
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