The NFL is set to beef up its regular season schedule with the introduction of a 17th game for each of its 32 franchises, but an official announcement about the expanded 2021 slate won’t be made until after the league has signed off on at least one of its new media-rights deals.
According to Article 12, Section 6 of the collective bargaining agreement of March 15, 2020, the league “has committed to negotiate at least one new media contract for the 2021 league year should the NFL elect to have a 17-game regular season” in that same year. Per multiple sources, renewals with the legacy networks are close to being finalized but haven’t quite reached the notary stage.
The bonus week of play would have an immediate impact on the league calendar. Super Bowl LVI, which is set to take place in L.A.’s SoFi Stadium on Sunday, Feb. 6, will in all likelihood be pushed back a week to Feb. 13. That will make for a hectic month for NBC, as a shift deeper into February would place the NFL title tilt smack-dab in the middle of the network’s coverage of the Beijing Winter Olympics. (Under the current arrangement, the Super Bowl broadcast will air opposite the third night of the 2022 Games, which will be carried by NBC cable sibling USA Network, with select events available for live streaming via the Peacock app.)
When NBC swapped the rights to broadcast the 56th Super Bowl in 2019, it did so in order to ensure that its Winter Olympics coverage wouldn’t conflict with CBS’ stewardship of TV’s biggest draw. The forced synchronicity also made for one hell of a package for deep-pocketed advertisers, making NBC the center of the sports universe for those three wintry weeks.
As luck would have it, NBC in 2018 aired Super Bowl LII and the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in rapid succession, with football serving as a lead-in of sorts to all the speed skating, snowboarding and ice skating. The South Korea Games kicked off four days after the Eagles beat the Patriots in front of 103.4 million viewers.
Per terms of the CBA, a 17-game schedule also would reduce the number of preseason games from four per franchise to three, with the exception of the two teams that meet in the annual Hall of Fame Game. Should the NFL forge ahead with the new scheme, Pittsburgh and Dallas would still get the same bye during the week before the start of the regular season, but with the exhibition in Canton added to the three standard scrimmages.
In addition to altering the landscape of the NFL season, the extra week of play should prove to be a windfall for the league’s broadcast partners. Based on Standard Media Index estimates for 2019, in which each regular season NFL game in December 2019 brought in an average haul of $24 million in ad sales, the overall bump for the networks could add up to somewhere in the neighborhood of $180 million, depending on the strength of the matchups and the weight of each broadcaster’s cumulative ADU load. (Which is to say, how much in-game inventory the networks have to give to their advertisers in order to make up for any under-deliveries in earlier games.)
Thanks to their expansive Sunday afternoon coverage, which includes the 1 p.m. ET and 4:20 p.m. ET windows, CBS and Fox each would rake in around $60 million for their respective regional windows. NBC’s average per-game haul is north of $40 million, but given the likelihood that the NFL will elect to flex a game with playoff implications into that bonus primetime slot, the sky’s the limit. Case in point: the Dec. 29, 2019 Sunday Night Football capper that saw the 49ers win the NFC West and the No. 1 playoff seed with their 26-21 win over the Seahawks. According to iSpot.tv estimates, that San Francisco-Seattle showdown scared up nearly $69 million in ad sales revenue before any make-good allowances were made.
While the final week of play does not feature a national broadcast window, some of those CBS and Fox games reach more than three-quarters of all U.S. TV markets. The more coverage a given matchup has among affiliates, or the closer it is to reaching a coast-to-coast audience, the higher the cost to advertise in that game. For example, CBS’ late-afternoon Chiefs-Saints broadcast on Dec. 20 generated $53 million in sales, per iSpot data. Exclusivity and reach helped inflate CBS’ in-game unit costs; according to Nielsen, the Mahomes-Brees airshow was available in 98.6% of all U.S. media markets—because of certain NFL contractual agreements, the game was blacked out in Phoenix—and aired opposite just two late regional telecasts on Fox.
The NFL’s familiar 16-game schedule has been in place since 1978, when the league added two games to each team’s schedule, and agreed to slash the preseason load from six games to four. That same year, the NFL added a pair of wild-card teams to the playoff roster, increasing the number of franchises eligible for a shot at the Lombardi Trophy to 10.
As is stated in the CBA, a move to adopt a 17-game NFL schedule will activate a “media kicker” that will further increase the players’ share in league revenue. That codicil also has a bearing on future earnings; while the terms of the CBA elevated the players’ share from 47% to 48%, their take bumps up to 48.5% in the event the NFL’s TV revenues increase by 60% under the terms imposed by the new rights deals.
The CBA, which extends through the 2030 season, already has had a transformative effect on the NFL schedule, as it allowed for the introduction of two additional wild card games. CBS and NBC snapped up the rights to those additional playoff broadcasts on the same day the games were approved by the 32 franchise owners, with each network paying some $70 million for the rights to air their respective broadcasts.
While the sports-business universe has been waiting for months for the metaphorical puffs of white smoke to emerge from the equally metaphorical chimney at 345 Park Ave., there is no telling when the NFL will announce that one or more of its media-rights deals has been sorted out. Since the clock ran out on the Super Bowl last month, the prevailing wisdom has suggested that the new contracts would be touted as soon as “any day now” or as far-off in the indeterminate future as “[shrug emoji].” Splitting the difference, we expect the last of the renewals to clear the law firms within the next two weeks.
Probably. Maybe. [shrug emoji]