18-game NFL season is coming, but the negotiating clash is just beginning

If league can reach 18, it can jump-start goal of 16 international games per season

The percentage of revenue sharing is in play in the players and NFL team owners' battle over an 18-game regular-season schedule. (Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)
The percentage of revenue sharing is in play in the players and NFL team owners' battle over an 18-game regular-season schedule. (Bruno Rouby/Yahoo Sports)

The 18-game NFL regular season is coming. It’s a matter of time, money, reorganization — and some inevitable hand grenades tossed across the negotiating table.

It's the same as it was in 2008, when NFL team owners triggered an early opt-out clause in the collective bargaining agreement. Same as it was when the league tried in vain to get a 17th game added into the 2011 CBA (the current CBA doesn't contain an opt-out clause). And same as it was nine years later, when players finally agreed to expand the schedule, negotiating a tradeoff for a larger share of revenue, a more accessible pension, a handful of veteran-friendly contract and franchise and transition tagging enhancements, and changes to the league’s drug-testing and suspension policies.

All of that came with a cost, of course. There were nasty exchanges between the league and the union, leaving bruises on the reputations of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell and former NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith. But the pact also made the league’s team owners richer, while simultaneously pumping more money into a rapidly expanding salary cap. The exchange has helped franchise valuations soar to unprecedented levels, while paving the way to significant contract spikes at nearly every position on the field.

This is why there will be an 18th game in the NFL’s regular season. It will benefit enough people to make it worthwhile. But it’s also why there’s a dance happening right now because getting to that agreement will mean digging trenches and carefully crafting a plan of attack. That's what the league and players union are beginning to do.

That’s what you are hearing when Goodell talks about adding an 18th regular-season game, dropping a preseason matchup and adding in a second bye week — but fails to address the key issue of revenue split, which is going to be the biggest hurdle in any agreement.

It’s also what you’re hearing when the NFLPA leaks out the idea of restructuring the league’s offseason, potentially eliminating organized team activities and other “voluntary” work that keeps players orbiting around team facilities in the offseason — but tries to distance that idea as part of an exchange for an 18th game.

Here’s the truth: It’s all part of a dance for an 18th game. It’s not the big dance. It’s the warmup routine — stretching, getting loose and feeling out a rhythm before the complicated steps get taken. But that latter part is coming.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell responds to questions during a news conference after the football league's owners spring meetings Wednesday, May 22, 2024, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell sees an 18-game regular-season schedule in the league's future. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

With that in mind, here are three key issues coming down the pipeline during this wrangling for an 18th game, along with how it impacts players, club owners, team staffs and the league in general ...

In every labor negotiation between franchise owners and players, this is always the most important discussion at the table. Following the negotiation of the 2006 CBA, the two sides were basically equal partners in the league, with salary, pension and other roll-ins accounting for nearly a 50-50 revenue split. The club owners soured on that CBA's structure, triggered an early opt-out and locked out the players in 2011 while pursuing a new agreement. The result was a deal in 2011 that ultimately rolled back the overall revenue slice for the players, bracketing them into a spectrum that resulted in roughly 47 percent of revenues over the entirety of the agreement. During that time, a prevailing feeling developed in the league that franchise owners would never surrender 50 percent of total revenues again, forever striking down the perception that team owners and players were equal partners.

Since then, the union has been fighting to get back to that 50 percent split, if not exceed it. With the exchange of the 17th regular-season game, the 2020 CBA clawed the players’ share to a current 48.5 percent standing. That becomes the first and most important figure for the union in any acceptance of an 18th game: Getting to the 50 percent revenue split or beyond it, which would pump another $250 million (or more) into the hands of the membership in the first year of an equal split, is the goal.

This is where it’s going to get contentious.

For the NFLPA to achieve a 50 percent revenue split for players, it would likely need to demand exponentially more — possibly a 52-48 percent split in favor of the players, just to get team owners to compromise and agree to move from 48.5 to 50. Without a doubt, owners will likely go through the roof at a demand to move players from 48.5 percent to 52 percent in revenue share, even if it’s just an attempt to get a 50-50 middle ground.

For players, the achievement of these numbers would be immense. Even if the middle ground of a 50-50 share were achieved. That would effectively put the NFL on the same plateau as the NBA, which currently has a 50-50 model between ownership and players.

So the big question: Why should the union and its players feel emboldened to make a massive swing for half the revenue pie? The answer is on the league’s horizon with the current television and streaming deals, which it can opt out of in 2029.

LANDOVER, MD - SEPTEMBER 25: Fox Sports camera in use during the game between the Philadelphia Eagles and the Washington Commanders on September 25, 2022 at Fedex Field in Landover, MD. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
TV broadcasters like Fox are looking at a hefty media rights price tag for the NFL. (Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

First, more games mean more attractive options for networks. And that means when the league opts out of its current broadcast and streaming deals in 2029, it can negotiate an even bigger payday if it has the 18-game schedule in place. With the next CBA negotiation not set until 2031, the league needs to get the 18-game schedule done before 2029 so it can leverage it into the next broadcast/streaming deals. This is one of the biggest reasons the NFL is pushing this now. It can’t wait. It has to make it happen in the next few years.

And the second priority: If the league can get an 18-game schedule in place, it can jump-start its goal of putting on 16 international games per season — effectively one international game per team — inside the next decade. That’s what Goodell and the club owners want, providing a vehicle to establish more international broadcast contracts and putting games onto six of the globe's seven continents every year (excluding only Antarctica … for now).

With an 18-game schedule, the NFL stands to make a significant amount of money in 2029 when it renegotiates its deals, not to mention a more forceful international push by having every NFL team play a game outside the United States. That’s extremely valuable to the league. And it’s why the NFLPA and its player membership can play some hard ball on the revenue split.

And one bonus development the league likes about the 18-game schedule: It could push the Super Bowl to the Sunday before Presidents Day, meaning Super Bowl Sunday would then roll into a national federal holiday (and day off) on Monday. That means potentially higher ratings for the game in prime time — and a younger demographic staying up late to watch the Super Bowl — knowing that there is no work or school the next morning.

The significance of adding an 18th game has to be sold to the players. That means gaining something that appeals to the entire spectrum of the membership. While more money in free agency is attractive, that largely appeals to a smaller group of players than most realize.

The current salary cap trend in the league is for a team’s best three to five players to account for 40 percent of a team’s cap in any given year. That leaves 48 to 50 players on an active roster splitting the other 60 percent. Applied more broadly, it means that roughly 10 percent of the league’s players (say 150 to 160) are eating up around 40 percent of the the annual average value spent on salaries, with the other 90 percent (say 1,500 to 1,600) are splitting 60 percent.

How does this impact the union’s players? Well, when the NFLPA is selling more money in the system as a reason to justify an 18th game, most players know that means it’s far more money for the 150 elite players than everyone else.

So the NFL has to sell something else that has an impact from the top of the salary chain to the bottom. And that thing is an offseason that allows players to get away from the team in a more real, sustained way. That could be accomplished by eliminating the vast majority of current offseason activities in favor of having the players report earlier in July (say, the first week of July), then following a two-month “ramp up” period into the first week of September.

For the players — arguably all the players — it means a long, sustained break that would be broken up by only a spare few things, allowing them to have a more free life in the offseason. In this scenario, scheme installations and classroom work could be done via Zoom or other mediums, with possibly just rookie and full squad minicamps as the lone “come together” moments for in-person practice and installation. Effectively, it would eliminate “voluntary” offseason activities that aren’t truly voluntary, freeing up as much as two months of additional time for players to get away and rest.

This is going to be controversial for multiple reasons. Some players — maybe most — will like the idea. But some players will also hate it because it takes away from some key time to build locker room chemistry and makes teams less connected on various levels. It also opens the door for less accountability in studying, workouts and other aspects. Because of this, it will likely never be a slam dunk “win” that many think it would be among players.

Now flip to the other side of the fence. Coaching staffs are going to hate it. Front offices are going to hate it. That won’t change, no matter how the offseason is packaged. One AFC general manager told Yahoo Sports that eliminating any of the current offseason structure would be “severely damaging” to the quality of NFL games and open the door to added friction between coaching staffs and players.

“It’s not a [tech] company,” the GM said. “There isn’t a ‘work from home’ culture. That’s not what we’re instilling in guys. You have to be here. You have to be accountable to each other. Nobody would ever take that s*** seriously.”

If the league is serious about the health of players, it should marry an 18th game with improved health-care benefits. As it stands, vested veterans (players with three qualifying seasons in the league) get a five-year extension of health-care benefits following the conclusion of their last qualifying season. After that, vested veterans can apply for capped health-care reimbursements from a pool of money that is set aside during a player’s career and dependent on the number of vested years a player established. Those health-care benefits should be extended beyond the mandatory five years, possibly even doubled.

Team owners won’t be in favor of this, much like they’ve continually fought against long-term or even life-term health insurance. Why? Because medical care is expensive and often unknown, leaving open the possibility of mounting profit recession as time goes on.

Club owners are also going to be against a more fierce set of standards when it comes to the playing surface of games, but given the NFLPA’s continued research into injuries occurring on grass versus turf, it should remain a priority in an 18th-game negotiation. This, along with a second in-season bye week, the elimination of another preseason game and fewer “short” turnaround games (such as playing on Sunday and then the following Thursday) should fall into the same column.

EAST RUTHERFORD, NJ - SEPTEMBER 26: A New York Giants helmet sits on the turf against the Dallas Cowboys at MetLife Stadium on September 26, 2022 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)
The turf at MetLife Stadium, home of the Giants and Jets, has been a source of debate. (Photo by Cooper Neill/Getty Images)

Franchise owners and the league in general will continue to push back against enhanced playing surface restrictions or sanctions. They’ll be less adamant about the additional bye week and elimination of a preseason game. As for the short turnaround games, if it enhances the broadcast/streaming packages, club owners will want to keep the status quo. That means teams will continue to do the quick turn.

None of this is going to be easy for the union to accomplish. But the NFL isn’t going away on the 18th game addition. The clock is ticking toward the 2029 television contract renegotiation. And the more expansive push into an “every season, every team” international game format is waiting for a green light.

The league knows what it wants. It’s telegraphing that importance every time it entertains a question about an 18th game as a realistic possibility. That should give leverage to the union in a trade that seems destined to happen. All it takes now is for the players to get on board with a hard-line negotiation. And for the NFLPA, that might be the most difficult task of all.