“I think there’s some real intensity and opportunity over the next few weeks,” one person familiar with the state of the negotiations said, adding that the participants are “working hard” to complete a deal.
Owners have shown a willingness to make concessions to get the players to put aside their concerns about a 17-game season, according to people on both sides of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private negotiations.
It’s not clear what concessions would be deemed acceptable by the NFLPA to agree to a longer regular season, which the union previously has opposed on player-safety grounds. But it appears that at least some of those concessions would be tied to the sport’s economic system for compensating players, perhaps through modifications to the rookie compensation system put in place in the labor deal reached in 2011.
That 10-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and union runs through the 2020 season. The NFL and NFLPA have been negotiating throughout this year, attempting to avoid another work stoppage such as the lockout of the players by the owners that preceded the 2011 agreement.
Representatives of the sides have continued to meet during the 2019 season, and it appears a deal could be in place during the playoffs in January or at the Super Bowl in early February in Miami. If there’s no agreement by the Super Bowl, pressure would increase on the sides to strike a deal before the beginning of the new league year in March, at which point the expiration of the current CBA would be only a year off.
Owners also would prefer to deal with the current leadership of the NFLPA. Changes could be made in March to the group of players in leadership positions in the union.
It’s not clear how close the sides are to resolving the central economic issue of the dispute — how to divide the sport’s revenue, estimated at about $15 billion per year, between the owners and players under the salary cap system. People on both sides of the negotiations traditionally have believed that all other issues fall into place once the central economic issue is resolved.
If so, that could include the 17-game season. Owners recently turned their negotiating focus from an 18-game season to a 17-game season. That would add only one regular season game, perhaps making the arrangement more palatable to players. The union has consistently expressed public opposition to any increase in the length of the regular season. But some owners have grown increasingly convinced that they will be able to get the players to agree to 17 games, according to those with knowledge of the deliberations.
A 17-game season would be accompanied by a reduction in preseason games. It also could come with an expansion of the NFL playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, although people familiar with the situation previously have suggested that expanding the playoffs would not need to happen immediately because it does not require the union’s approval.
A lengthening of the regular season does require union approval. When the owners abandoned their proposal for an 18-game season before the 2011 labor deal, they said they remained interested in lengthening the regular season but would not do so without the players’ consent.
NFLPA officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the topic Wednesday.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at an owners’ meeting last month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “We’ve had very fruitful discussions on it, discussing the positives and negatives, the changes to the game that we’ve made over the last 10 years, which I think are really important as it relates to the safety of the game and how we’re preparing and practicing, training our players.”
A 17-game regular season could mean that each team would play one neutral-site game per season, with some of those games to be held in London, Mexico City and potentially other international venues. Or teams simply could alternate seasons with eight or nine home games and continue to surrender home dates for international games.
A 14-team playoff field, whether implemented as part of the CBA or later, would mean that seven teams in each conference would qualify for the postseason instead of the current six. Only one team in each conference, rather than the current two, would receive a first-round playoff bye. There would be six opening-round playoff games leaguewide, instead of the current four, and one of them potentially would be played on a Monday night.
Owners view both the 17-game regular season and the expanded playoffs as revenue-boosting mechanisms that would be valuable in negotiating TV rights deals with the networks and would serve to offset revenue losses associated with reducing the preseason.
Owners previously have appeared willing to make concessions to the players on Goodell’s authority in player discipline and the sport’s marijuana policy. Under those concessions, players would be given the neutral arbitration they have sought for disciplinary rulings by the league in cases of off-field misbehavior, although Goodell probably would retain the power to both make disciplinary rulings and resolve appeals in cases involving integrity-of-the-game issues. The marijuana policy probably would be made less punitive. The league and union already have been cooperatively studying the potential use of marijuana by players for pain management.
But it could require tweaks to the rookie pay system for owners to get 17 games, according to those with knowledge of the talks. Under that system, incoming players are signed to four-year contracts and teams have a fifth-year option on players selected in the first round of the NFL draft.
Owners were briefed during last month’s meeting in Florida on the status of the negotiations with the NFLPA. They probably will be updated during the next scheduled owners’ meeting in December in Dallas.
“The discussions have been consistent,” Goodell said at the Fort Lauderdale meeting. “We’ve had very open dialogue. We all know the various issues. I think it’s been productive. I don’t know how to gauge when or how soon. I’m hopeful that we all see the benefits of doing something earlier and that we can get something done. But that’s still to be determined.”