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

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“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 a 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, wasting no time in capitalizing on the revenue-enhancing opportunity that comes with a longer regular season.

Owners voted in December to ratify a scheduling formula for a 17-game season. The 17th game will 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 league navigated the coronavirus pandemic.

The league’s new TV contracts, now being negotiated, are expected to reflect the addition of regular season games. The league and owners 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 union have agreed that the salary cap for the 2021 season will be no lower than $180 million.

That’s down significantly from the salary cap of $198.2 million for the 2020 season. But it’s not as low as it could be, given the steep revenue decline suffered during a pandemic-affected season in which games were played in empty or partially filled stadiums. The NFL and 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 too pronounced.

The sides already 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 for 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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