Amid mounting criticism of an uncompelling exhibition-season product with sparsely attended stadiums and star players being withheld from games to avoid injury, there is increasing conviction within the NFL to shorten the preseason.

The change could take effect by the summer of 2021 and probably would need to be accompanied by an expansion of the league’s playoff field or regular season to offset the revenue lost from cutting one to two preseason games per team. It is being discussed as part of ongoing negotiations on a new collective bargaining agreement between representatives of the NFL Players Association and team owners, people familiar with the league’s inner workings said.

The options being discussed include the lengthening the regular season from 16 games to 17 or 18 or the expansion of the playoff field from 12 teams to 14. While some owners have not given up on getting players to agree to an 18-game season, the union’s ongoing resistance is increasingly likely to turn the focus to adding playoff games, according to those with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the confidentiality of the negotiations.

It is unclear, however, whether owners might push for a 17-game regular season if the NFLPA remains adamantly opposed to 18 and whether players would be receptive.

As for the preseason, it is becoming more certain that it will be cut to two or three games. One person close to the situation said it is “safe to say that the preseason will be shortened at some point.”

Owners have the right, in their view, to shorten the preseason and expand the playoffs without the union’s consent. But it appears, at least at this point, that consideration of those changes is taking place within the context of bargaining between the owners and the NFLPA.

NFL teams play four preseason games each, with the two participants in the annual Hall of Fame Game playing five. All teams are scheduled to play their final games of this preseason Thursday night.

The league has acknowledged the lack of quality of preseason games for close to a decade. In the negotiations that preceded the 10-year labor agreement struck in 2011, owners proposed shortening the preseason to two games and lengthening the regular season to 18 games but abandoned the idea after the NFLPA rejected the proposal on player-safety grounds.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has continued to concede in recent months that preseason games are not up to the league’s standards.

“What we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now,” Goodell said at a June charity event in Buffalo, according to the Associated Press. “I’m not sure, talking with coaches, that four preseason games is necessary any more to get ready for a season to evaluate players, develop players. There are other ways of doing that, and we’ve had a lot of discussions about that.”

Teams have become increasingly willing to leave standout players, particularly star quarterbacks, on the sideline for all or nearly all of the preseason, minimizing or eliminating injury risks. Many games this preseason have been played in nearly empty stadiums.

Owners would lose revenue by cutting preseason games — teams charge season ticket holders for them, sometimes at a reduced rate — and would be unlikely to agree to a reduction of the preseason without an accompanying revenue-enhancing measure.

That measure, to many owners, should be an 18-game season, which has resurfaced during these CBA negotiations. A person on the players’ side said it’s “not a secret that NFL owners want more games.”

Some owners point out that increased revenue means more income for players, who receive a share of it under the salary cap system. Owners seem willing to increase roster sizes to get players to agree to a longer regular season. A proposal to limit each player to 16 games in an 18-game season does not appear to have widespread support on either side. But some owners also seem prepared to make concessions to players in other areas, such as the league’s marijuana policy and Goodell’s authority in player discipline.

Still, players and NFLPA leaders have expressed strong public opposition to an 18-game season. The retirements of standout players such as New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski and Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck before their 30th birthdays could reinforce the notion that the sport already takes an often-unmanageable toll on players’ bodies.

But an expanded set of playoffs almost certainly would be more palatable to players, given that players would be asked to play only two additional games.

Under the proposal, seven teams in each conference would qualify for the postseason instead of the current six. One team in each conference, rather than the current two, would receive an opening-round playoff bye. That would make for six first-round playoff games (three in each conference) instead of the current four, one of which might be played on a Monday night. The two additional playoff games probably would be enticing to networks in the NFL’s next set of negotiations for TV rights deals.

It’s not known whether expanding the playoffs would preclude the owners from seeking a 17th regular season game. That probably would involve each team playing one game per season at a neutral site, perhaps in another country.

The current CBA runs through the 2020 season. The league and the union have gotten an early start on bargaining for a new deal, trying to avoid a damaging work stoppage such as the owners’ lockout of the players that preceded the 2011 agreement.

Read more: