Why 18 Games?

In recent days it has become clear that the owners are desperately hoping to add two more games to the NFL regular season.  It’s become a point of some contention for the players union and apparently among some fans.  Before judging the impact of the idea, it’s important to understand the roots of it.  The current CBA crisis is essentially about revenue, though the owners are trying to obscure the issue by bringing up a host of secondary complaints like HGH testing, a rookie wage scale, and an 18 game season.  However, when you strip it all down to its core, the only real issue is who is getting what money.

The 18 game season has been something the owners have considered for a long time, but really gained momentum after Roger Goodell saw the 2008 preseason.  If you’ll remember, the 2008 preseason was particularly horrid, especially in Indianapolis, where Peyton Manning did not play.  The Colts opened a brand new stadium and promptly put a hilariously bad product on the field.  The truth is that preseason games are a crime against season ticket holders, and Goodell knew it.  People hate playing full price to two games that are quite simply unwatchable.  However, the owners LOVE the extra revenue they generate with preseason games and won’t ever voluntarily give that up.

There seemed only one solution: drop one or two preseason games and replace them with regular season games.  This won’t lead to any additional gate money, but it will lead to increased television revenue.  The extra TV money could then help off set the massive gap between what the players want to make and what the owners want to pay them.  Additionally, the thought was that the fans wouldn’t mind for two reasons:

1.  Who is going to argue with more football?

2.  The value of a season ticket increases.  As much as some people want to complain that this move wouldn’t help the fans, it’s simply not true. Currently, season ticket holders pay full price for two games that are typically so bad that you can’t give away tickets.  Have you ever tried to get someone to use your fourth preseason game ticket?  Trust me, you aren’t getting any money back, and you’re lucky if you can even find someone to use the ticket.  Even if an 18 game season led to increased ticket prices (which would violate most economic principles…more supply rarely leads to higher prices), at least you’d be able to resell them at regular season rates.  Under an 18 game season, season ticket holders would still pay for 10 games, but they would get 9 real ones instead of 8.

On the surface, it seemed like a golden plan.  It helps the league settle the revenue issue, and it gives the fans more football.  In the past two years, however, it seems that the debate has shifted to a different front: player safety.  As information about concussions continues to roll in, people are more wary than ever about exposing players to more games.  To this time, this remains the only valid argument against the 18 game season.  However, it’s not as sound as one might think.

What impact trading two preseason games for two regular season games will have on the overall health of NFL players remains to be seen.  What’s interesting, however, is that the union has begun lobbying against this plan with guns blazing, trying to paint the owners as uncaring about the physical risks the players undergo.  When the plan was first discussed, the response wasn’t nearly so severe as it is now.

In fact, the entire issue has become little more than a political chess piece in the battle for the hearts and minds of the fans.  As much as some people might worry about things like records, numbers in the NFL have little value.  Few fans can rattle off any single season NFL records, other than perhaps the touchdowns thrown mark.  Records just aren’t as hallowed in the NFL as they are in baseball because the men who built the NFL played much shorter seasons.  The NFL has had season of all sorts of different lengths from the beginning, and there is simply no tradition to keep the league locked into a 16 game season.  Arguing that fans don’t remember anyone who played before 1980…well, that’s just nonsense and hilariously insulting to the men who REALLY built the NFL. After all, pro football has been the most popular sport in the United States since the 1960s.

Will a longer season lead to more injuries?  It certainly leads to more opportunity for players to be injured, however it’s foolish to claim that teams will look like MASH units by week 18.  After all, playoff teams currently play up to 20 weeks a season, and they aren’t necessarily riddled with third string backups playing significant downs.  Besides that, if the only concern was more injuries, shouldn’t the NFL CUT the current schedule back to a more traditional 14 or 12 games season?  After all, we’d see fewer injuries that way.

Of course, that won’t happen.  Why?  Everyone wants/needs the money, and fans love football. Frankly, if the fans are unwilling to see the season trimmed down to fewer games, why should they care if it is lengthened?  Obviously, injury prevention is not so important that people are clamoring to shorten the season.  16 games certainly wasn’t chosen out of any consideration for player health.  It would have to be proven statistically that players would suffer a greater rate of injury in game 18 than in game 16.  If players’ injury rate is not any greater, and more injuries occur simply because of more opportunity, then there can be no objection to playing a longer season.

I suspect that whether one supports an 18 game season or not probably has a lot to do with whether you pay for season tickets or not.  An 18 game season would actually add value to the season ticket of a hard working fan.  Unless it can proven that injury rates rise dramatically from game 16 to game 18, there is probably no stopping a longer season.

I for one, won’t miss that scintillating final preseason matchup with the Bengals every year.

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