In the present Collective Bargaining Agreement there is the stated right of the NFL to expand the regular season, which has been noted in comments by Commissioner Goodell. With the increased emphasis on player safety, however, Goodell is smart to not unilaterally impose this kind of extension to the season.
Goodell reached out to NFLPA Executive Director DeMaurice Smith on the enhanced season before the debate appeared on the national radar. He has engaged Smith in the discussion and, although the NFLPA has and will make noise about the increased risks, there is already a sense that the enhanced season can be implemented in exchange for some concessions.
The enhanced season solves two issues for the NFL:
1. It creates new revenue streams for increasing the regular season by 12%, adding inventory for sponsorship and licensing revenue and teeing up added revenue from the NFL's primary revenue stream: television. NFL ratings continue to soar in an otherwise flat ratings environment and pricing of rights fees to the networks, DirecTV and digital media properties will continue to trend upward; and
2. It goes a long way towards solving the problem with the preseason, where there has been no good answer as to how to drum up interest. Now, half of the problem is solved, as meaningful games replace meaningless ones.
As to the apparent contradiction of a league becoming increasingly concerned about player safety and the cumulative damage to players' bodies and brains, that is real. Football is not a contact sport; it is a collision sport, a series of train wrecks. Players will complain about increased injury risks, the shortening of careers and the lack of appropriate pay increases, etc. And the NFL will serve itself well by simply not responding in the media, rather at the bargaining table.
The NFLPA has certainly not rejected the idea of the enhanced season. They have asked for concessions to be made in exchange for agreeing to the longer season. Those concessions include:
A shorter time period for injured reserve. A change here would no longer mandate that the player have to be placed on season-ending injured reserve. This period could be a six-week IR.
Adjustments to the vesting requirements for the NFL pension. Currently, players must complete three credited seasons in the NFL before vesting. With a longer season, those vesting requirements will be adjusted.
Increased roster size. This perhaps would add a 54th and/or 55th player to the roster and/or increasing the practice squads from a maximum of 8 players to 10 players.
Increased gameday roster size. Presently, only 45 of the 53 players are allowed to be active for a game (I saw many players' wilted reactions in the locker room when told a couple hours before the game that they would not be dressing). Proposals before the league to increase that number have been shot down in the past, but the enhanced season could be the necessary balance to increasing active rosters to 48, 49 or 50 players.
Reduced offseason activities. Combined with the player safety initiatives, this is a measure that was coming anyway. After this CBA, there will be very few days between the end of the season and the start the next season's training camp where players will be required to be a their team's facilities. Offseason workout programs will be pared down and the number of OTA (organized team activities) will be drastically reduced. Coaches and scouts will bemoan the minimal amount of time they will have to evaluate players -- this combined with a reduced preseason -- but their concerns will be washed out in the horse-trading necessary to complete a deal.
The NFL will give on all of these issues to get the enhanced season. They will not address them to the full extent the union would like, but they will address them. The enhanced season is coming.
The NFL initially asked the NFLPA for a rollback from the 2006 CBA allocation to the players of 18%. They have now come off of that number but are waiting for Smith and the NFLPA to move from their first offer before they move again.
Somewhere in coming negotiations, the NFL will use the extra two games as a strategic way to soften that stance, offering up a much more modest rollback in exchange for a commitment on the two extra games.
Forecast: The enhanced season will happen, probably starting in 2012. Offseason and training camp contact will be limited; a bye week will be added; game-day rosters will increase from 45 players to 49 or 50 with an overall increase in roster size to 54 or 55 and practice squad from 8 to 10. Despite the apparent contradiction to the player safety initiatives, the 18-game season will happen as the complaints will be drowned out by the pronouncements of labor peace for the foreseeable future.