16 regular-season games? 17 games? 18? Two preseason games? Three? Four? The questions and concerns about the future of the NFL schedule have been batted around for well over a year, yet there seems to be no common ground between the NFL Players Union and the NFL's owners on what's best for everyone.
Here's a thought: Addition by subtraction. And I'm not talking regular-season games. I've got a two-pronged plan on how the league and the union should end this.
Generally speaking, season ticket holders don't pony up the big bucks for the preseason games. If anything, they're a pain. No one likes going because you see an inferior product compared to a regular-season game. Some season ticket holders complain that they can't even give their preseason tickets away.
So Part I of my solution to the schedule snafu is simple: Every team kills one preseason game. Thus, every team will play one preseason game at home and one on the road. The end.
However, in doing so, NFL teams are NOT obligated to reduce their season-ticket prices. Yes, this means they'll still charge patrons their 10-game price for nine games, but it's one of those annoying preseason games they're cutting. Does this mean fans are getting stuck with footing the bill for the owners making more profit? Yes it does. Is it bad P.R.? On the surface it is, but I can't imagine many season ticket holders being up in arms over losing value on their tickets by having one less preseason game to shlep out to. If a good business has a failing or faulty product, they fix or eliminate it, right? That's what the NFL is doing here. If fans are upset and the team wants to do something to make up for it, they could offer some sort of special experience where season ticket holders could meet players, have a banquet with the coaches, spend an afternoon tossing the pigskin around on the field, whatever. Accomodations could be made.
If a preseason game is chucked, teams would probably schedule a scrimmage with another team in its place, which makes for an opportunity to sell general admission tickets (you know you'd pay $10 or $20 to see your team scrimmage) and perhaps a TV deal or webcast deal for the scrimmage itself. A scrimmage would give coaches a chance to work against opposing teams and players in specific game situations that might not come up (or not come up enough) in a preseason game. For instance, on one side of the field an offense works on third-down plays against a third-down defense and on the other, a goal-line offense works against a goal-line defense.
Playing one less preseason game wouldn't have a tremendous financial impact on the owners -- they wouldn't have the extra stadium operating costs, but they might have to give back some money to local TV stations for their preseason coverage unless the game is replaced by the aforementioned scrimmage. But playing one less preseason game would have an impact on the players as it represents one fewer game for them to incur injuries.
Part II of my solution is equally simple: Expand the Thursday night package and sell it to a network, with the owners keeping the majority of the money gained from the package. Without knowing the specifics, it is believed that both NBC and ESPN paid well over $600 million per season to broadcast one game a week. Under this proposal, the NFL would keep the first $500 million gained from a TV deal for a Thursday package and split the remaining revenues with the players. (Currently the NFL is charging NFL Network $0 million for the Thursday games).
Why is this important? Because then the owners could simply give the players what they originally wanted: Take $1 billion off the top of the league's $9 billion in revenue and split the remaining $8 billion. Now, the league would conceivably land closer to $10 billion in revenue with a Thursday night TV deal and take $1.5 billion off the top. With $8.5 billion remaining, that's more money for all parties involved. Would it be a problem selling the NFL to a network for $500 million? I think we both know the answer to that question.
Players keep 16 games, lose two preseason games (one per team) and still get the same slice of pie (if not bigger) they've been served for years. Owners keep the ticket revenue they've been accustomed to while picking up significantly more non-union revenue. Fans and networks ultimately end up paying more, but not an exhorbitant amount -- in the case of the fans they'll just pay what they have been paying all along. A network will see the chance to buy the Thursday package as a business opportunity. The rookie wage scale, health care issues and retirement fund dilemmas would fall into place.
The league and its players would ultimately have a Collective Bargaining Agreement without much disagreement. Fantasy Football leagues wouldn't be in peril, nor would our normal Sunday rituals in the fall and winter. Life would be good again.