NFL moves to 17-game regular season in 2021: What it means for teams, players, revenue and fans

Welcome, NFL fans, to the Sweet Seventeen.

As has been expected for months now, NFL owners voted Tuesday to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 starting this year. This is not a drill, people. This is happening.

And sure, you might have heard that it was going to happen, but you probably still have questions about the specifics. How will it work? Who plays whom? Who makes money off this deal?

We're here for you. You've got questions, we've got answers:

Wait. This starts this season?

Yep. The 2021 regular season -- as in, the one that starts in a little more than five months -- will be the first 17-game regular season in NFL history. The new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) that was negotiated and signed last year allows the NFL to go to 17 games as early as this season, provided they've negotiated at least one new media rights deal, which they have.

The owners' vote Tuesday was a formality, as they already had laid the groundwork for the format and addressed it with their network TV partners in the latest negotiations. Since the new CBA runs through 2030, this likely becomes the new NFL reality for the foreseeable future.

So, will the season start earlier or run later?

Run later. The Super Bowl, which had been scheduled for Feb. 6, 2022, is now expected to be played Feb. 13, 2022. The season is expected to start with the traditional Thursday night opener Sept. 9, which had been the plan even if the season had stayed at 16 games. The first regular-season Sunday is expected to be Sept. 12, and the Sunday of Week 18 -- when the final regular-season games will be played -- is expected to be Jan. 9, 2022. We say "expected to be" because we're dealing with a year that still could be affected by the lingering COVID-19 pandemic.

Will teams get two bye weeks apiece?

No, they will not. The 17-game regular-season schedule will be played over an 18-week span, with each team still getting one bye week per season.

What about the preseason?

The preseason will shrink. The CBA mandates that the combined number of games per team in a season shall not exceed 20 (with an exception made for the two teams that play in the annual "Hall of Fame" preseason kickoff game). This means that, in any season that includes 17 regular-season games, no more than three preseason games can be played per team.

It's possible the league would shorten the preseason even further, but at this time -- and especially in light of the fact the entire preseason schedule was canceled in 2020 -- the expectation is that there will be three preseason games per team. (Again, except for the teams in the Hall of Fame game, who would play four apiece.)

Can the players fight this?

Not anymore. The CBA gives the owners the right to expand the regular season to 17 games, which means the players already have signed off on this. You'll hear plenty of grumbling about it, because in general players don't like the idea of the toll an extra game will take on their bodies. And it was a significant point of contention a year ago, when the CBA was being negotiated.

The players who opposed the deal believed they should be extracting more concessions from the owners in exchange for the 17-game season, which the owners had made a priority. That sentiment was strong enough that the CBA barely passed a player vote -- 1,019 to 959 -- to achieve ratification. But pass it did, and this is the new reality whether the players like it or not.

Are the players getting any more money out of this deal?

In the big picture, yes, very much so. The players' share of league revenue, which had been 47% and was scheduled to rise to 48% starting with the 2021 league year, includes a "media kicker" that applies once the league goes to a 17-game regular-season schedule. Basically, depending on how much the new TV deals are worth, the players' share of revenue can increase. If the new TV deals represent a 60% revenue increase over the old ones, the players' share of revenue increases to 48.5%. If the new TV deals represent a 120% increase over the old ones, it goes to 48.8%.

The impact of those TV deals on the NFL's economic landscape likely won't be felt until 2023, but to give you some idea of the numbers we're talking about: The league reported approximately $15 billion in revenue in 2019. If the players' share of revenues were to rise from 48% to 48.8%, and we use 2019 revenue figures, that means an increase of about $120 million in revenue spent on player costs. Divide that by 32, and it would have made the 2020 salary cap about $3.75 million higher than it was.

League revenues are expected to soar well past that $15 billion figure under the new TV deals, so those numbers will only get more significant.

Well, that's nice for the future, but what about the players who are already under contract? Are they getting any more money?

Some of them will, yes. The CBA specifies that any player whose base salary is higher than the minimum number for a player of his service time will be eligible to receive an extra game check as long as (A) his contract was executed prior to Feb. 26, 2020, (B) his was not renegotiated or restructured in any way that added to subtracted value to it, and (C) he's on the active roster, inactive list or injured reserve for the 17th game.

"Extra game check" is defined as 1/17 of the player's base salary, and it's to be paid as a lump sum at the end of the year. Some guys will make out pretty well on this. For example, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo has a base salary of $23.8 million in 2021, which means he'll get an additional $1.4 million -- as long as he's on the roster for the 17th game. (Garoppolo's is the highest such number we've been able to find that we're sure fits the formula.)

If a player signed his contract after Feb. 26, 2020, the idea is that he and his agent knew the 17-game season was coming, because it was clear at that point that the new CBA would include the right of the league to implement it, and so therefore, he doesn't get any extra game checks.

Does the new schedule change the way the players get paid?

Yes, but the new CBA was going to do that anyway. Under the old agreement, players were paid in 17 weekly installments during the regular season -- one for each game and one for the bye week. So if a player's salary was $1.7 million, he'd get $100,000 every week starting in Week 1 and running through Week 17. Under the new format, he'd get paid over 18 weeks instead, so the guy making $1.7 million would now get a weekly check of $94,444.44 each week if the pay schedule remained the same.

The pay schedule, however, does not remain the same. Under the new CBA, players may be paid over a period of 34 weeks for any league year in which the regular season is 16 games or over 36 weeks for any league year in which the regular season is 17 games. This was a change the players pushed for, as it allows them to get paid for a larger chunk of the year than just in-season. Now that it's a 17-game regular season, players will receive 1/36 of their base salary each week over a 36-week span that begins in Week 1 and runs through the 18th week following the end of the regular season.

How exactly will this all work, with an odd number of games?

The NFL's 2021 schedule won't be out for several more weeks, but the formula that decides each team's opponents means teams have known for months who they'd be playing if the 2021 schedule had remained at 16 games. Adding the extra game means adding an extra opponent, and the owners voted some months ago on a format that would determine that extra opponent based on division standings from the previous year.

The league will match each division with a division in the other conference, rotating those matchups each season, and the team that finished first in one will play the team that finished first in the other, and so on. The current plan is to match interconference divisions that played each other two years ago, which means that, in this first 17-game season:

  • AFC East teams will play NFC East teams

  • NFC North teams will play AFC West teams

  • NFC South teams would play AFC South teams

  • NFC West teams will play AFC North teams

So, to determine the specific matchups, look at those pairings and see which teams finished in which spots in the standings in 2020. The Washington Football Team, which finished first in the NFC East, would play its extra game against the Buffalo Bills, who finished first in the AFC East. The Chicago Bears, who finished second in the NFC North, would play the Las Vegas Raiders, who finished second in the AFC West. The Carolina Panthers, who finished third in the AFC South, would play the Houston Texans, who finished third in the AFC South. And so on.

But won't some teams get extra home games?

Yep. With each team playing 17 games in a season, the league's schedule symmetry vanishes. Half of the league's teams will play nine home games in the regular season, while the other half will play nine road games in the regular season. Fair? Not really, but everybody is getting rich off the deal, so they're just going to have to live with it.

To maintain some level of equity, the owners have proposed a system under which one conference's teams would get the extra home game one season and the other conference's teams would get the extra home game the next. Example: All AFC teams play nine home and eight road games in 2021, then all NFC teams play nine home and eight road games in 2022, then AFC again in 2023 and so on.

We're going to have to get used to weird-looking win/loss records, huh?

Indeed. Not even Jeff Fisher could go 8-8 under this format. Teams could go 8-8-1, maybe, but it's going to be extremely unusual for a team to finish exactly .500 as long as there's an odd number of games.

What about individual records? Will they need to carry asterisks now?

Good question, but I don't see that being an issue. Sure, records for most rushing, receiving and passing yards that were set in 16-game seasons are all in jeopardy now that those seeking to beat them get an extra game to do it. But this has happened before. Prior to 1978, the NFL's regular season was just 14 games. Obviously, a large majority of the league's volume-based records have been set since the expansion to 16 games 43 years ago.

And surely, 43 years from now, we'll look back (well, maybe you will) and say that all of the records had been broken and rebroken several times since 2020. The first time someone goes over 2,000 receiving yards in a season, some Scrooge somewhere is going to say, "Yeah, but Calvin Johnson set the record in only 16 games," and they're going to be right. But that's just the way of the sports world.

We aren't used to it in football because, well, it has been 43 years since we had a change like this. They didn't even have Twitter then so everybody could find out what literally everybody else in the world thought about the change. Can you imagine?

Is all of this just a precursor to an eventual expansion to 18 regular-season games?

No. The CBA specifies that the league cannot expand the regular season beyond 17 games for the life of the deal, which runs through 2030. So the soonest the owners could expand to 18 games would be 2031, unless the players agreed to open up the CBA and renegotiate it, which would be a whole thing.

What other revenue-generating things could the expanded regular season lead to for the NFL?

Sixteen extra games per season offers the league an opportunity to fill some of the new spaces on the TV schedule that will result from the new TV deals, whether that's Monday Night doubleheaders, late-season Saturday games or Sunday morning-window games in other countries.

One of the topics in Tuesday's owners discussion was the future of international games, with Canada, Germany, Mexico, Brazil and the United Kingdom all discussed as potential sites. Beginning in 2022, all 32 teams will play internationally at least once every eight years.

Will we see teams rest players because of the extra game?

Absolutely possible. Look, those of us who have been in NFL locker rooms in December and January know this is no small thing. These guys are badly beaten up by the end of a 16-game season, and it's only going to be worse once it's 17. Players are going to have to figure out the best way to manage themselves through a longer season, and it's entirely possible that extra rest along the way will be a part of it.

Coaches -- especially coaches of playoff-bound teams -- are going to have to figure out the best way to manage their players through a longer season, and of course it's possible that means more guys sitting in Weeks 17 and 18 just to make sure they're in shape to play in the postseason. There's likely going to be a lot of trial and error on this front in the first couple of years as everybody gets used to it.

Will the cost of my season-ticket package go up?

That, my friend, is a question for whichever team it is whose tickets you buy. I have no insight to offer there, but I do have a guess.