Although this is hardly surprising, according to reports on Sunday, the NFL does indeed intend to expand the regular season to 17 games for the 2021 season, something that had already been planned as part of the 2020 Collective Bargaining Agreement, but which had been thrown into some uncertainty with the surging pandemic.
A week or two ago, the league’s owners met virtually to discuss the possibility, and how it would work out in terms of making the schedule and who the 17th team would be for the schedule. While there will likely be no announcement for some time, an article from Tom Pelissero and Ian Rapaport quotes a league source as saying that “we’re all anticipating it’s going to happen”.
Part of the equation involved in expanding the regular season is the league’s commitment to establishing new broadcasting deals, and they must negotiate at least one new deal, according to the CBA, in order to make that expansion for 2021.
The Covid-19 pandemic has both hindered the ability but also strengthened the resolve to get this done. The loss of revenue stemming from the lack of fan attendance in games this year has been a major hit for the league, but they also want to do everything they can to prevent a reduction in the salary cap in 2021, and adding the revenue of a 17th week is the most obvious way to do that.
The 2020 season has been played under a salary cap reaching nearly $200 million, the largest salary cap in the history of the NFL. several months ago, in response to the projected loss of revenue due to the pandemic, the NFL and NFLPA agreed to establish a cap floor for 2021 of $175 million, meaning that the cap would be at least that much, but possibly more.
Reportedly, the league wanted to take as much of the financial hit as possible in 2021, meaning that they wanted the cap next year to be even less than $175 million. The union obviously opposed this, as it would mean many players losing their jobs as salary cap cuts.
When the season does expand to 17 games, the 17th game that teams will play will be an interconference game, meaning that AFC teams such as the Pittsburgh Steelers will be playing an NFC team, equivalent to where those two respective teams finish in the standings within their division, on a rotating basis.
Another attractive possibility for the league in expanding to an odd number of games is that it increases the ease with which they can add neutral-site games, since it would not require that any teams have fewer home games than road games, as is currently the case.