NFL takes pivotal step toward adding a 17th regular-season game

·NFL columnist
·3 min read

While the NFL hasn’t made a final commitment to adding a 17th regular-season game beginning next season, it did clear a significant hurdle toward that effort on Wednesday.

The league finalized a formula that will determine where that 17th game will come from. In effect, the league’s team owners settled on the “how.” Next up, they will determine the “when.”

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said that decision could be made in the next several weeks, as the league continues to drill down on the implications of an added game on its broadcast deals, as well as other considerations such as cutting down the number of preseason games. Wednesday’s approval sets the structure of the opponent for the 17th game, which will be an opponent from the opposing conference, but coming from outside of the historically rotating interdivisional matchups that already exist.

For example, if it’s a season when the NFC North is slated to play the AFC South for out-of-conference opponents, the 17th game for NFC North teams will consist of the AFC South and one more AFC team from outside the South division. The additional opponent will be determined by the previous season’s divisional standings and will also rotate to a different division each season.

Getting the mechanics of the 17th game out of the way implies that the NFL is closing in on making it a reality in 2021. It’s notable that franchise owners didn’t finalize the implementation in this week’s conference call, which supplanted a planned in-person owners meeting in Dallas. While Goodell wasn’t specific about the reason for the delay, he suggested that the NFL still wants to make its decision very carefully.

“We had a lengthy discussion on this,” Goodell said on a conference call with the media. “Obviously, it’s an important decision for us. We did not take any votes with respect to committing to do it. In the collective bargaining agreement, we have that right to do it. … It obviously comes into play with respect with our future media arrangements that we obviously are contemplating. We expect a decision will be made on that in the next several weeks.”

Given the revenue shortfalls facing the league after this year’s COVID-disrupted season, it’s hard to fathom the NFL putting a lucrative 17th game onto the back-burner for another season, particularly after team owners worked so hard to negotiate the schedule expansion into the CBA last winter. But there are some daunting moving parts that would include restructuring the preseason to eliminate at least one of those games in the event of a regular-season addition, as well as maximizing the broadcast rights implications.

All of that said, Goodell may have tipped that the game is on its way to approval with his time frame for the decision. That’s largely due to the reality that if the game is added for next season, the details would likely have to be finalized no later than the end of January, so the 2021 NFL calendar could have ample time to be adjusted prior to the start of the league year in March. It appears that Goodell and the league’s club owners are operating on that timeline.

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