The last expansion of the NFL playoffs came in 1990. There were only 28 teams (32 now) and three divisions per conference (four now). The NFL decided to add a wild-card team per conference, so three division champs and three wild cards made the postseason.
An estimated 79 million people watched the Super Bowl that season, the New York Giants beating the Buffalo Bills, 20-19.
If only 79 million tune in next Sunday, when Seattle and Denver meet in Super Bowl XLVIII, commissioner Roger Goodell might as well hope he catches pneumonia while he watches the game sitting outside in MetLife Stadium.
An audience that small – 108.4 million watched last year's game – would be a disaster.
And that's probably why, of all the changes to the NFL that Goodell has floated out, another expansion of the playoffs (not the elimination of the extra point) may wind up being the most likely – and controversial – to be actually ratified.
The NFL is going on a quarter century without expanding the postseason and there is overwhelming sentiment among fans that there is no need to fix what isn't broken. Even plenty of owners feel the same way. Goodell himself says nothing would happen until 2015 at the earliest, perhaps to temper panicked reactions.
Still, Goodell has been sending out playoff expansion trial balloons lately, the most recent this week on the NFL Network when he noted an idea of adding a wild-card team from each conference and giving only the top seed a bye.
The move would create two additional wild-card games – i.e. two massive television events that can bring in, industry sources estimated for Yahoo Sports, up to half a billion dollars from networks.
The bidding wouldn't be quite that simple – how much for one wild-card game? – but those are the estimates for games that tend to average between 30 and 50 million viewers. ESPN currently pays over $100 million for each Monday Night Football game, and none generate that kind of audience.
It's easy to criticize the NFL for selling out and chasing money it really doesn't need, but it is a business and what other business is sitting on something that profitable without tapping into it?
After 47.1 million watched the San Francisco-Green Bay wild-card game earlier this month, this just feels inevitable. And while it isn't exactly preferable, it's certainly better than going to an 18-game regular season – one of Goodell's past publicly commented proposals.
The league has argued that games could be added to Friday and Monday night of wild-card weekend. It seems triple-headers on Saturday and Sunday – essentially extending Sunday Night Football, which is the No. 1 show on television – probably makes the most sense though.
Goodell is claiming his interest in adding wild-card teams is to provide good clubs with a path to potentially winning the Super Bowl, but it's likely just a bottom line decision. Few observers of the NFL think many qualified teams are being left out often. This year the two teams would've been Arizona (10-6) and Pittsburgh (8-8).
"The big discussion would be the first weekend, the wild-card weekend of the playoffs, how would you structure that?" Goodell told the NFL Network. "Three on Saturday, three on Sunday? We're looking at every alternative, and I think that's what the membership ultimately is going to have to decide. Would you play a game on Friday night, two on Saturday, two on Sunday and another on Monday?"
Actually the big discussion is whether this is worth it – even at so many hundreds of millions of dollars. Such a change would need to be ratified by the league's owners – 24 of 32 needed. There may not be enough support, according to the Washington Post.
"Until we have a discussion on it on the floor, it's hard to say," New York Giants owner Wellington Mara told the Post's Mark Maske. "You need 24 votes in this league. Is there enough support? It's hard to say. I have mixed feelings on it. I've always been opposed. One of my concerns is when do you play the games. I think there are some issues there. I'm also concerned about watering the playoffs down. But I'm still willing to listen to the other side."
Unintended consequences are always frightening. The league has done a great job making Week 17 of the season compelling and competitive by setting up additional divisional matchups. What does one more wild-card spot do to that? And does it water down the competitiveness of the entire season?
Currently 37.5 percent of league teams reach the playoffs. Adding just one wild card per conference bumps that up to 43.8. However, for half a decade in the 1990s – until adding teams started in 1995 – the league had just 28 teams going for 12 playoff slots, so the number was 42.9 percent. It didn't seem like a big problem back then.
Three wild-card games struggled to sell out this year – in Green Bay, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. Of course, everyone just watched on television and more than ever, the NFL is a made-for-TV product. The money is in the Papa John's commercials, not the slices at the stadium.
Goodell has missed obvious ramifications of his decisions in the past. When pushing for a rookie salary structure a few years back he vehemently and repeatedly argued that it wouldn't cause a flood of underclassmen declaring for the draft at their first shot. This stood in clear contrast to what happened in the NBA when it enacted such a structure – players decided to get to the league as soon as possible so they could get the clock ticking toward their big-money second deal.
"I don't agree with that [assessment]," Goodell told Yahoo Sports in 2009. "I think it's the opposite. If there's not big money to come out, you stay in school, improve yourself and then play in the league for a long time."
Last week a record 98 underclassmen made themselves eligible, many citing the salary structure.
An expanded playoff could be even a bigger deal, something fans might notice in watered down competition, mediocrity rewarded and, of course, two more games to entertain tens of millions of them on wild-card weekend.
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