We think of the NFL as the league without problems. Compared to other professional leagues, which tend to struggle with falling TV ratings or financial woes, the NFL is where the fans just keep coming and the owners just keep printing money.
This year, more than any in recent decades, we are seeing that is not the case. The league’s range of problems — a looming lockout, disturbing evidence related to concussions, even the new positioning of umpires on the field — seems to extend across the board.
Even the popularity of the sport has become something of a burden itself as fans and critics — even commissioner Roger Goodell — have spoken out about the need to reduce the schedule of meaningless preseason games.
But that’s where we find one of the owners’ biggest problems, one that threatens to stain the fabric of the game.
The owners are pursuing an 18-game regular season that they will advertise as an enhancement of this country’s most popular sports product. Instead, an 18-game season will do little more than increase the threat of injuries that shorten players’ seasons and careers.
Beyond that, it will spoil the symmetry and balance of the 16-game season, dismissing the significance of the league’s record book and creating less drama as the regular season winds to conclusion.
The owners’ problem starts with this. They have grown accustomed to 20 games (16 regular, four preseason), which means a 10-game season ticket package. Customers have willingly gone along with paying full price for these exhibitions, even though the stars of the league tend to make only cameo appearances in certain games.
Goodell is to be applauded for acknowledging that the preseason is a charade that lasts too long.
The college game has become increasingly sophisticated through the years. Even if it’s not at the pros’ level, it’s not exactly T-formation football that will be on display this Saturday.
The college teams get ready without four exhibition games. Or two. Or one.
Fans of the professional game deserve better than they have been getting. How any of us ever went along with the 14 regular-season, six exhibition-game format that lasted until 1977 is beyond me.
So the owners’ response is to cut the preseason to two games and extend the regular season to 18. It’s understandable that season-ticket holders would respond with enthusiasm.
But it’s the incorrect response.
The injury risk should need little explanation. Each year at the Super Bowl we examine the list of games that teams’ starters lost to injury. The two Super Bowl teams will be near the bottom of this list.
Being the healthiest is every bit as important at being the best, and that’s in a 16-game regular season.
The 16-game season, adopted in 1978, breaks up neatly into four quarters. It’s just the right length for sustained drama from start to finish. There is something to be said for not overexposing your product, even one with the appeal of the NFL.
Even if the format has been around only 32 years, at least you can compare the play of today’s young quarterbacks and running backs to what Dan Marino was doing in the ’80s or Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders were achieving in the ’90s.
And if you’re not worried about losing that, then consider this. Each season, the subject of whether or not the league’s best teams should rest their starters the last game or two before the playoffs is debated.
Now picture the 18-game season. See the Colts sitting there at 12-2 with a month to go and no team in their division better than 7-7? You think that won’t happen, whether it’s the Colts or someone else?
The collective bargaining battle that’s coming offers fans little to cheer. It’s millionaire players against billionaire owners.
On the 18-game season, take the side of the wounded players.