The NFL has three years to convince players to agree to an 18-game schedule for the 2014 regular season. But it might first want to make sure all the owners are on board, particularly those in cities where the winter winds blow brutally cold.
"If we're talking about just adding two or three weeks to the end of the season, I'm not interested in that," Pittsburgh Steelers president and co-owner Art Rooney II said.
Rooney's objection could be a popular sentiment that the league will have to deal with from teams in cold-weather cities with outdoor stadiums. That's at least 10 franchises: the Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bears, New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles, Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, Cincinnati Bengals and the two New York clubs.
Rooney went on to say that the schedule would have to include the league adding at least one of those weeks at the front of the schedule and forcing the NFL to once again collide with Labor Day weekend. In 2001, the league made it policy to start the season after the holiday. The move was designed to help with the ratings for television networks because many fans use that weekend as vacation.
"We have to add at least one week at the front, otherwise all of the weather problems you're talking about in January are too much, in my opinion," Rooney said.
Packers president Mark Murphy expressed many of the same concerns.
"If you're talking about starting the playoffs in the third week of January and playing into February, that's a concern for us and our fans," Murphy said.
The resistance from Murphy and Rooney, whose father Dan is adamantly against going to 18 games, is the most significant pushback to date from ownership. The concerns from those involved with the cold-weather teams are threefold. First, there is a worry about the weather adversely impacting the game. Second, there is the concern about public safety with fans having to travel in potentially treacherous conditions. Third, there is a concern that mediocre teams or ones projected to be so could see season-ticket sales plummet.
"Trust me, I've seen it and it's a real concern," an AFC team executive said. "You go to a place like Buffalo and the fans there see that the team is in transition and they say, 'I'm not buying season tickets.' They don't want to go to those games in January. They'll wait and buy individual tickets and if the team is good come January, they'll buy the tickets then."
The NFL had tried to push the idea of an 18-game schedule for two years, eventually dropping the idea for now after players expressed extreme concern over the physical grind from two additional games. However, the league and the television networks are expected to make the proposition more enticing for players when negotiations start over new TV deals. The currents contracts are set to expire after the 2013 season.
Two things figure to make the players rethink their positions. First, the league agreed with the players to more stringent rules on hitting and practice time for the offseason, training camp and regular season during the last round of negotiations that concluded with the new collective bargaining agreement. During training camp, teams are limited to seven two-a-day practices with no pads allowed for the second practice. In the regular season, teams are limited to 14 practices in pads.
Murphy, a former safety with the Washington Redskins, said those moves were made with an eye on convincing the players to eventually go to 18 games.
"If we show we're really intent on protecting the players, that's something we can show them when we talk about expanding the schedule again," Murphy said.
The second, and perhaps more important, factor is that the networks likely will put different offers together to the NFL on the upcoming TV deals. In other words, there will be one price to a 16-game schedule and another for an 18-game schedule. Expect the 18-game schedule to be much higher and, therefore, more tempting to players.
Eventually, the goal for the league and the networks is to move the end of the NFL season back to President's Day weekend. That is generally two weeks after the postseason currently ends.
"We're already creeping toward that with the Super Bowl in February, so it's not that much farther to go," Murphy said.
The networks prefer the later date because it could make the Super Bowl part of sweeps week and impact ad rates. Also, the league envisions a situation where it can sell a four-day Super Bowl experience to cities interested in hosting the game by including the Monday holiday that goes with President's Day.
That could be a marketing boon to a league that hopes to grow from its current $9 billion gross revenue to approximately $15 billion in 2014.
Not that all the football people are terribly interested in marketing strategy.
"The marketing people," the AFC executive said, derisively. "Yeah, they handle the money. They don't make the money. … Like I said, I've been asking these questions about what's going to happen, but I haven't heard any answers. I'm still waiting, but the marketing people keep talking about how great it will be."
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- Art Rooney II