Negotiators for the NFL and the NFL Players Association have made meaningful progress toward a new labor agreement, raising hopes that a deal could be struck by early next year that is increasingly likely to include a 17-game regular season, according to multiple people familiar with the situation.
The positive momentum has buoyed optimism for an agreement to be in place by the end of the upcoming NFL postseason.
It’s not clear what concessions would be deemed acceptable by the NFLPA to agree to a longer regular season, which the union previously has opposed on player-safety grounds. But it appears that at least some of those concessions would be tied to the sport’s economic system for compensating players, perhaps through modifications to the rookie compensation system put in place in the labor deal reached in 2011.
That 10-year collective bargaining agreement between the league and union runs through the 2020 season.
Representatives of the two sides have continued to meet during the 2019 season, and now it appears a deal could be in place during the playoffs in January or by the Super Bowl in early February in Miami. If there’s no agreement by the Super Bowl, pressure would increase on the two sides to strike a deal before the beginning of the new league year in March.
Owners also would prefer to deal with the current leadership of the NFLPA. Changes could be made in March to the group of players in leadership positions in the union.
It’s not clear how close the two sides are to resolving the central economic issue of the dispute — how to divide the sport’s revenue, now estimated to be about $15 billion per year, between the owners and players under the salary cap system. People on both sides of the negotiations traditionally have believed that all other issues fall into place once the central economic issue is resolved.
If so, that could include the 17-game season. Owners recently turned their negotiating focus from an 18-game season to a 17-game season. That would add only one regular season game per team, perhaps making the arrangement more palatable to players. The union has consistently expressed public opposition to any increase in the length of the regular season. But some owners have grown increasingly convinced that they’ll be able to get the players to agree to 17 games, according to those with knowledge of the deliberations.
A 17-game season would be accompanied by a reduction in preseason games. It also could come with an expansion of the NFL playoff field from 12 to 14 teams, although people familiar with the situation previously have suggested that expanding the playoffs would not need to happen immediately, because it does not require the union’s approval.
A lengthening of the regular season does require union approval. When the owners abandoned their proposal for an 18-game season before the 2011 labor deal being completed, they said they remained interested in lengthening the regular season but would not do so without the players’ consent.
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said at an owners’ meeting last month in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., “We’ve had very fruitful discussions on it, discussing the positives and negatives, the changes to the game that we’ve made over the last 10 years, which I think are really important as it relates to the safety of the game and how we’re preparing and practicing, training our players.”
A 17-game regular season could mean that each team would play one neutral-site game per season, with some of those games to be held in London, Mexico City and potentially other international venues. Or teams simply could alternate seasons with eight or nine home games and continue to surrender home dates for international games.