With 17 Games, the N.F.L. Evolves for Streaming Generation
We come to praise the 16-game N.F.L. schedule, but also to bury it.
The 16-game regular season was the Platonic ideal of professional sports scheduling for 43 years, in part because the number 16 itself is a neatly divisible, perfect square of almost fearful symmetry. Each team’s schedule could be easily subdivided into even numbers of divisional games and interconference matchups. With the addition of a bye week in 1990, the 16-game schedule occupied almost precisely one-third of the calendar year, making football season feel comprehensive yet brisk and intense, unlike the sprawling 82-game N.B.A. and N.H.L. seasons that nearly overlap themselves.
Unfortunately, the 16-game schedule is going the way of the leather helmet. The N.F.L. formally announced Tuesday that its regular season would expand to 17 games, rubber stamping a move team owners have been preparing for over a year. Farewell, even numbers and familiar statistical benchmarks! Say hello instead to Super Bowls that take place on Presidents’ Day weekend and mediocre playoff teams that boast winning percentages of 52.941176.
The expanded schedule means expanded revenues for the league, of course. The new 17-game season dovetails with the recently announced 11-year, $110 billion media rights agreements with broadcasters and streaming services that take effect in 2023.
But the N.F.L. is not merely adding a week of games. The league is evolving so it can become an even larger part of a changing culture and multimedia ecosystem, just as it was doing when it expanded the regular season from 14 games to 16 in 1978.
That year, the N.F.L. did much more than add two games to its schedule. It introduced wild card teams so it could add an additional round to the playoffs. League owners also enacted sweeping rule changes designed to increase passing and scoring, which would become something of a habit for them over the next four decades. The new rules permitted blockers to open their hands to push defenders without incurring holding penalties and prohibited defenders from dragging wide receivers around the field behind motorcycles. (More precisely, the rampant and often vicious downfield contact that made defenses like Pittsburgh’s “Steel Curtain” so effective became illegal.)
As a result of relaxed rules and the 14 percent longer schedule, pre-1978 statistics looked quaint just a few seasons later. The All-Pro Miami Dolphins quarterback Bob Griese threw for 2,252 yards and led the league with 22 touchdowns in 1977. By 1984, Dan Marino shattered existing records with 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns while playing beside some of Griese’s former teammates.
Before the arrival of the 16-game schedule, the N.F.L. preseason lasted six grueling weeks. The regular season did not begin until the third week of September and ended in mid-December, followed by two short weeks of playoffs. Even Super Bowls were held on Sunday afternoons, as if they were just another game, until the end of the 1977 season. Starting in 1978, the regular season and playoffs essentially took their modern footprints and culminated in a prime-time television spectacular.
Pro football’s changes were so pronounced and swift that the advent of the 16-game season looks in retrospect like Dorothy’s arrival in Oz. The game’s history before 1978 is sepia-toned, with fans in parkas and fedoras huddled on icy bleachers watching grizzled, hung over quarterbacks who smoked cigarettes during pregame warm-ups (as John Facenda narrated the scene). Everything after 1978 is in vivid color, faster-paced and poised for the era of cable television, satellite packages, video games and fantasy sports.
The 16-game schedule provided a durable framework as the N.F.L. expanded from 28 to 32 teams and six to eight divisions, increased the number of playoff participants from 10 to (as of last year) 16, added bye weeks, introduced Sunday and Thursday night television packages and conditioned football fans to watch live coverage of off-season events like the draft and scouting combine. The schedule was so well-structured in later years that fans knew which opponents their favorite team would face next season the moment the previous one ended. Yet droves of fans tuned in to watch schedule announcement shows anyway.
The new 17-game schedule arrives at another time of rapid change. The N.F.L. has long embraced fantasy football and is now welcoming legalized gambling partnerships. Media rights have been awarded to streaming services in addition to traditional TV broadcasters, and the league is expected to use some of the extra games to expand its international presence. Just as it ditched bell-bottoms and abandoned midcentury trappings in 1978, the N.F.L. in 2021 is putting away its cargo pants, downloading TikTok and getting ready to appeal to zoomers.
Traditionalists howled in the first years after the N.F.L.’s 16-game expansion, when old records were easily eclipsed and men with nicknames like “Hacksaw” and “The Assassin” ceded the stage to golden boys like Joe Montana. Purists will also fret in the weeks and months to come about a supposedly diluted product with too many games and playoff teams.
Come winter, those same naysayers will surely end up rushing to finalize their fantasy lineups before plopping on a bar stool or sofa for that extra week of games. Within a few years, we will all grow accustomed to wild card teams with 9-8 records, commonplace 5,000-yard passing seasons and play-by-play announcers on 5K-resolution broadcasts updating the point spread after halftime. The 16-game era will then feel grainy and fusty by comparison.
On a related note, the N.F.L. also shortened its preseason by one game. No one will complain about that change.
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