Monday, February 14, 2011

A Case Against the 18-Game Schedule

With the 2010 NFL season laid to rest, the NFL Players Association (NFLPA) and the Owners have moved into negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement. Well, at least in theory that's what they should be doing. But in reality, it's been more of an ego-fest from the owners and all things point to them locking out the players come March 3.

The main sticking point in the negotiations is in the revenue-sharing department. The owners want more money. The players want money put towards their healthcare after they retire.

One of the things that Roger Goodell is pushing for is an 18-game season. He and the rest of the owners are seeing dollar signs when they think about this idea.

However, from a fan's perspective, it's a terrible idea.

Let's start with the basics. Goodell's rationale for 18 games is that "the fans want it." Which is untrue. His logic rests on the fact that season ticket holders don't like that 2 of their 10 games are "meaningless" games.

But Goodell misses the mark here. He obviously either didn't talk to any season ticket holders or didn't actually listen to their complaints. The complaint rests in the fact that the NFL charges season ticket holders the same amount for a Preseason game as they do for a Regular Season game. So what does that mean? That means every Steelers season ticket holder has to fork out somewhere around $90 per game for two preseason games.

Does this suck? Absolutely, but it doesn't mean that season ticket holders around the league want an 18 game regular season. What it does mean is that they'd like to see the costs of tickets for preseason games go down. But asking the NFL to lower ticket prices would be like asking Enron for a legitimate financial statement.

But let's look at things from a fan's perspective for a minute. What exactly would an 18-game schedule mean?

Obviously, it would mean two more games -- but against who?

The current 16-game schedule is built around the following principles:
- 6 games against Divisional opponents (3 home, 3 away)
- 4 games against all teams from one other division in conference (2 home, 2 away)
- 2 games against teams finishing in the same position in the other two in-conference divisions (1 home, 1 away)
- 4 games against all teams from one division from other conference (2 home, 2 away)

Now, this formula doesn't leave a whole lot of room for additional games. Obviously, you can't add additional divisional games without adding teams to each division. But we'll get back to that later.

This leaves basically two options for scheduling purposes.

Option 1: Add 2 conference games

To be honest, this is the easiest option. Adding 2 conference games would essentially mean adding games against two teams from the divisions they only face one opponent from. Currently, teams play the teams in those divisions that finished in the same place they did. For example, the Steelers won their division, so they will play the 1st place teams from two divisions, in 2011 the East (New England) and West (Kansas City).

If the NFL goes to an 18-game schedule the easiest adjustment will be to have the teams that finish in the top half of a division play the other teams that finish in the top half of their divisions. In the case of the 2011 Steelers, this would be New England, NY Jets, Kansas City, San Diego.

Option 2: Add 2 non-conference games

This is a little more difficult because there wouldn't be an easy way to create a formula for randomizing these other two teams. Adding 2 non-conference games to an 18-game season wouldn't make logistical sense either because then 1/3 of the season would be made up of non-conference games. As the schedule stands right now, only 1/4 of the season is non-conference games.

Now, let's go back to something I touched on earlier. One of the best ways for the 18-game schedule to make formulaic sense is for there to be more teams in the league. We know that there are cities out there (I'm looking at you Los Angeles) that want an NFL team. But here's the problem: there are also cities out there that can barely support an NFL team. Look at how many blackouts there have been in places like Jacksonville, Tampa, Charlotte (Carolina), Phoenix (Arizona), and Cleveland. But it really wouldn't surprise me if Goodell was trying to put the cart before the horse and get an 18-game schedule on the books then use that as part of the rationale for expanding the league to 33 or 34 cities.

There are a variety of ideas being tossed around in the blogosphere for how to resolve this issue. One is to stick with the 16-game schedule but to add an additional bye week. I like that idea, as it would give the television stations another week of football advertisement revenues but wouldn't disrupt the flow of the season. In fact, giving players an extra bye week to get healthy in the middle of the season might mean less injuries late in the season.

The second idea would be to add a 17th game. Now, this 17th game would have to come with some stipulations. Obviously it wouldn't be fair to give half of the NFL teams an extra home game, so the 17th games would all be at neutral locations and would be against a "rival" team from the opposing conference. For instance, there could be an annual Steelers-Eagles game played at Beaver Stadium. That would be pretty sweet. This would be adding another non-conference game to the schedule, but it would make more logistical sense than trying to add another conference game. Plus, then teams wouldn't lose home games so that games could be played in London or wherever.

In conclusion, there are a lot of better alternatives to an 18-game schedule and I'm rooting against it. But in reality, I would rather there be 18 games than no football next fall.

I trust the Rooney's. I don't trust Goodell.

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