The NFL is planning to expand the regular season to 17 games in 2021 — a historic move that would generate new revenue and could at least slightly soften an anticipated drop in the salary cap next year, sources say.
An announcement may not come for weeks, if not months, since the NFL must first negotiate at least one new media contract in order to make the move to 17 games in 2021, per the collective bargaining agreement. But as one team source apprised of discussions said: “We’re all anticipating it’s going to happen.”
In turn, the preseason would be cut to either two or three games. There still would be one bye week per club, extending the total regular season to 18 weeks and pushing back the Super Bowl into the second week of February.
The NFL has played a 16-game regular season since 1978, when it added two games to each team’s schedule. Under the new CBA finalized this past March, the league and/or clubs have the discretion to increase the number of regular-season games per club to 17 — but not more — at any time, in concert with a reduction in the number of preseason games to no more than three.
Though there was always support for making the move to 17 games sooner than later, a projected multibillion-dollar revenue shortfall caused by the COVID-19 pandemic increased the urgency of the situation for both NFL owners and the players’ union. The sides negotiated a deal in August that spreads the accounting for the shortfall over several years and prevents the salary cap from dropping below $175 million in 2021 — compared to $198.2 million this year.
The cap is still likely to drop significantly in 2021, per sources, but the 17th game as part of a new media deal could boost it above that $175 million floor. The union’s share of all revenue already was set to bump up from 47 percent to 48 percent in 2021, and the move to 17 games with a new media deal triggers a “media kicker” on top of it that further increases players’ share.
Though there’s no specific deadline for finalizing a new media deal and a 17-game schedule, the schedule release — which normally takes place in April or May — is a logical target.
Going to 17 games also would open up inventory for possible new neutral-site and international games. The NFL already has been playing games regularly in the U.K. and Mexico, and has been eyeing possible games in Canada, China, Japan, Germany and Brazil.
NFL owners didn’t vote on going to 17 games at their virtual meeting Dec. 16, but did approve the scheduling procedure. Each team would play an extra interconference matchup — AFC vs. NFC — based on divisional standings from the preceding season and on a rotating divisional basis.