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How adding playoff games might benefit owners more than players

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NFL: Preseason-Houston Texans at Dallas Cowboys Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

There are still two seasons left in the current collective bargaining agreement for the NFL, but the two sides have already had several negotiating sessions in an attempt to reach agreement on a new CBA in order to avoid jeopardizing the 2021 NFL season. With the preseason for this year now complete, however, there have been multiple calls from players, fans and the media to cut back on the number of preseason games.

The issue, though is that preseason games are money makers for owners. As such, owners aren’t going to simply give up that money without putting a plan in place to replace the lost cash flows. That said, Jerry Jones made a quote that may or may not be him simply running his mouth, it could be something meaningful when combined with other recent rumors.

In short, it seems like the owners are aware that preseason isn’t the best product, and as the disaster in Winnipeg last week showed, the league has one of the most marketable products in the world, but preseason is little more than a blip on the radar. Specifically, let’s look at some ratings for preseason games.

For the Seattle Seahawks preseason Week 2 game against the Minnesota Vikings which was broadcast nationally on Fox, it carried a 1.1 rating, which is roughly 4.36 million people watching. That might seem like a decent number of people paying attention, but to put that rating in perspective, the Thursday Night Football game played on December 6, 2018 between the 4-8 Jacksonville Jaguars and the 6-6 Tennessee Titans pulled a rating of 3.1 in the 18-49 age category.

In short, the absolute worst Thursday Night Football game will draw far better ratings than any preseason game. Add in that the majority of preseason games are local broadcasts, as opposed to national broadcasts, and it’s not hard to see where the owners would be happy to make some modifications in order to increase the amount of revenue they are generating.

So, let’s move to looking at how many more people watch the playoffs than the preseason. Playoff games, even the Wild Card games, will draw above 20 million viewers, a number far larger than any preseason contest. Thus, it’s obvious it wouldn’t take the broadcast of many playoff games to not only replace, but exceed how much money the league makes off preseason. So, while players have effectively shot down the idea of an 18 game season as a non-starter, an idea that has seemed to gain footing is playoff expansion. While it may seem like the playoffs are already a watered down product, it wouldn’t be the first time the playoffs have been expanded.

Prior to 1990 the league had only ten playoff teams each season. Each of the six division winners and two Wild Card teams from each conference made the playoffs, with only the top seed in each conference enjoying a first round bye. The addition of third Wild Card team for the 1990 season created the current system in which each of the top two seeds in each conference have a bye in the opening round. So, assuming the league would go back to a system similar to that, while the players would sign off on such an agreement in exchange for reducing the number of preseason games, how would that benefit each side?

The players, of course, would likely be able to avoid injury not only as a result of the reduction in games played. In addition, eliminating a week of the preseason would also likely allow for training camp to be shortened by a week, reducing a week’s worth of practice injuries. The question then becomes what’s in it for owners? We’ve already looked at how measly the ratings are for preseason games compared to regular season games. When comparing the ratings for postseason games, it takes things to an entirely new level.

It’s no secret that the Super Bowl is the top rated television broadcast in any year, but the rest of the playoffs are right there behind it. In both 2017 and 2018 seven of the top ten rated television broadcasts were NFL playoff games. Just to cut right to the chase about how much money there is for the league in playoff games, Fox currently pays $550 million each year for Fox to broadcast ten Thursday Night Football games a year on Fox in addition to the NFL Network.

That’s an insane $55 million per game, for Thursday games that a lot of fans don’t watch because they aren’t all that intriguing. Did you stay up to watch the Titans and Jags play last year? What about the Denver Broncos against the Arizona Cardinals? In Week 9 the Thursday Night Football game was the 1-6 Oakland Raiders taking a bus trip down to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara to take on the 1-7 San Francisco 49ers. As atrocious as that matchup may be, that game still finished in the top 100 primetime broadcasts during the 2018 calendar year, tied with Game of the World Series and the matchup of number one Alabama versus number three LSU.

So, it’s literally possible to state that one of the worst regular season matchups in recent NFL history draws as many viewers in the most desirable 18-49 age category as a top flight college football matchup or game four of a World Series being played between teams from two of the largest media markets in the United States (Boston 9th and Los Angeles 2nd).

So, how much would networks be willing to pay for two additional Wild Card Games which would have sudden death postseason implications for both conferences? Obviously, a lot.

That brings the discussion to a major point: adding two Wild Card teams creates two additional NFL games over the course of a 256 game regular season, meaning it asks barely ten percent of NFL players to play one additional game. However, the compensation the players make for that game would not be all that substantial because players don’t earn their regular salaries during the postseason. During the postseason players are paid their playoff shares rather than salaries, meaning playoff expansion has the ability to generate material revenues without leading to an increase in player salary expenses.

For example, in 2019 NFL players who participated in the Wild Card games made either $27,000 or $29,000 depending on whether the team was a division winner or not. Thus, to pay an entire 53 man roster for appearing in a Wild Card game costs a team barely more than $1.5M. Add in that every play on injured reserve and in other inactive statuses earns that same amount, and the addition of two playoff games adds somewhere around $8M in extra salary expenses for teams (teams on bye don’t get paid, so that doesn’t even matter to them). Running some back of the envelope numbers, if Thursday Night games that average 15 to 20 million viewer tuning in, what is the value of two additional playoff games that are likely to draw in the neighborhood of 25 million viewers? Basically, one could easily expect the broadcast rights to easily go for well north of $100M just for those two games, with a projection of $200M or $250M of marginal revenue not out of the question.

In any case, playoff expansion is a veritable gold mine in which more than enough revenue could be created to offset a reduction in the preseason. The question then becomes, how much of the preseason can be replaced by two playoff games? How would the additional newly created revenue be split? And would the additional revenue benefit to the owners outweigh the benefit to the players? Those are the questions that need to be resolved to get rid of this fake football we’ve spent the last month watching and get a few extra hours of playoff football in January.