Only the owners, the players, and the TV networks really have all the numbers available to know the parameters limiting any solutions to the National Football League’s labor unrest. Yet, after spending yesterday blasting the greed and posturing of both owners and players, today I offer my own humble idea for at least a partial way out of the morass.
The key lies in the four-game pre-season. The owners say it’s too long; what they really mean is they can’t make as much money off pre-season games as they do off real contests, so they would rather have an 18-game (instead of the current 16-game) regular season with just two pre-season matches. Many fans say they resent being charged full ticket prices for games that don’t count; what they mean is not that they want more games to count, but that they want to pay less money. (Those fans are justified.) The players may not like the full-length pre-seasons as they are now, but they sure as heck know they don’t want to put their bodies on the line for an extra two play-to-win games each season. The players’ concerns are more than justified; they are humanely and even morally unassailable.
What’s needed is not two extra regular season games, but one more week in which to play the same 16 games. In other words, an extra bye week. And I write this as somebody who has always hated the bye week that already exists — but who, the other night, suddenly figured that the answer to one bad bye week isn’t elimination of that bye, but the addition of another.
Here’s how it would work, and why it’s a win-win for everybody:
First, nobody should argue that pre-season games serve no purpose: Every fan who has gotten excited by an unexpected rookie standout, along with every undrafted free agent who suddenly shines in the spotlight and thus finds a roster spot, all know how crucial those testing grounds can be. Most fans I know even enjoy at least the first three pre-season games, because they are so eager to see how the team’s new additions look under actual game conditions. Really, it’s only the fourth pre-season game that seems like overkill.
Therefore, instead of a four-game pre-season, each team would play three. Teams that host two of those games one year would host just one the next. The regular season would then start one week earlier. The teams, however, would still play just 16 “real” games. The extra week would be used for a second bye.
Why? First, because the problem with the current “bye” system is that it isn’t really fair. Byes are spread out over about seven weeks through the luck of the draw, so some teams benefit more from the timing of their byes than others (because of when they particularly need the bye to have their players recover from injuries). Worse, it’s almost always the case that one team coming off a bye week gets to play a team still banged up from playing the week before. Byes give a marked advantage in the week afterwards — making the bye an offense against the level playing field that any athletic competition should feature.
But with two byes, the problem is solved. In each of weeks 5 through 8, every team in one division in each conference would get a bye. Then in each of weeks 11 through 14, the same system would play out — with the same teams facing the same teams after the second post-bye week that they faced in the first post-bye week. In other words, the post-bye weeks would be shared by division rivals in their usual home-and-home scheduling. Nobody would have an advantage due to a fluke of timing. So, to take the NFC South for example, in year one the Saints’ post-bye weeks would feature home-and-home matches against the Falcons, and in year two it would be against the Bucs, and in year three against the Panthers. Scheduling fairness would be renewed. In addition, there would be more of a chance for key players to avoid missing games due to injuries, because there would be an extra week within each season for recuperation. That would be good for the players, for the fans — and for the owners, who could save cash by not needing to churn their rosters so often and not needing to put so many players on injured reserve and replace them with others. For that matter, it would mean a slightly greater chance that a good team wouldn’t miss the playoffs because of injuries to, say, a star pass-rusher or a starting quarterback.
All fine and dandy, you might say — but how does this solve the league’s financial impasse?
Extra TV revenue, that’s how. The network will pay more for 18 weeks of regular season than for 17 weeks. They don’t like being forced to carry pre-season games as part of their NFL contracts. Add another week of meaningful games, and they could make, and pay the league, a lot more money — and, frankly, for less cost. Think about it: For each of eight weeks of the year (both sets of four bye weeks), not just seven, the networks all combined would need full crews and full tech support not for 16 games but just for 12.
Granted, the owners would be collecting game ticket-sale revenue for one fewer game (a pre-season one) each year. But they also would pay less of all the attendant costs for putting on those games that are often less well attended and less likely to generate ancillary revenue for souvenirs, etcetera. Plus they would save, as mentioned, by presumably needing a lesser total number of players during the year; and they might even generate a larger number of season tickets — because an untold number of people decide to forgo season tickets only because they so resent having to pay full price for two home pre-season games each year that mean nothing. Heck, the one home game saved from the package every other year could subtly be worked into the per-game ticket for the games that do count — and most fans probably would either not notice or not complain.
Again, though, the main benefit would be that the league could probably bilk the TV networks for even more extravagant packages, a difference big enough to make up for the lost ticket sales. If my hunch on that is right, the owners could still allow the players the same 60 percent of the total take without stretching the less successful owners in whatever way they claim now to be stretched.
THERE… THAT SHOULD do it for now. All the other issues are easily solvable. Of course there should be a rookie wage scale, with the savings funneled toward veterans who have proved themselves. Of course there should be a reinstatement of the salary cap, but perhaps with fewer chances for the owners to game the system by writing exorbitant dollar numbers into the last year of (non-guaranteed) contracts they fully expect to void. In return, perhaps the players would agree to some limitation on allowable signing bonuses, but an expansion of allowable incentive clauses.
The point is, there should be lots of play in the joints of the NFL’s labor negotiations. But there is no reason for any work stoppage at all. A little creativity, and a lot less posturing, could keep the NFL’s good thing going.