The NFL is going to have more football this fall. And commissioner Roger Goodell expects stadiums to be roaring at capacity again.
The league’s 32 owners rubber-stamped a proposal Tuesday afternoon expanding the regular season from 16 to 17 games. This marks the first time since 1978 that the NFL has expanded its schedule, and it becomes the first American pro sports league to have an odd number of games in the regular season. The Patriots’ additional game in 2021 will be a home matchup against the Dallas Cowboys.
Goodell called it an “historical change to our season structure … [that] will provide fans with more meaningful and quality games that otherwise would not have been scheduled.”
But more interesting Tuesday was Goodell’s proclamation that fans should be back in stadiums in full force in 2021. NFL attendance dropped from about 17 million in a typical season to 1.2 million last year, with 13 teams, including the Patriots, barring fans the entire season. But given the pace of vaccinations, and with 5½ months to go before the start of the regular season, Goodell hopes “all stadiums” will be full this fall. Massachusetts is currently allowing 12 percent capacity at sporting events.
“All of us in the NFL want to see every one of our fans back,” Goodell said. “Football is simply not the same without fans, and we expect to have full stadiums in the upcoming season.”
Goodell did not state whether COVID-19 vaccinations would be required for fans to attend games, and the NFL will not likely require its players to get a vaccination to play. Goodell said the league is instead focusing on vaccine education.
“Trying to make sure with the NFL [Players Association] that we’re doing everything not just to educate our players, but all our personnel throughout the league,” Goodell said. “We are going to be encouraging all our personnel to get vaccinations, and we will be working with the NFLPA on all of these issues. We also will be working publicly to use our platforms to talk about the importance of vaccinations.”
As for the expanded schedule, the total number of games will remain at 20 — instead of 16 regular-season games and four preseason games, it will now be 17 and three. The dates and times of the 2021 schedule will be released in mid-May.
The expanded schedule will not include a second bye week, meaning teams will play 17 games in 18 weeks. Theseason will begin Thursday, Sept. 9, and the additional game pushes Super Bowl LVI in Los Angeles back a week to Feb. 13.
The additional game will be an interdivisional matchup based on a schedule rotation — the AFC East hosts the NFC East in 2020, and the Patriots and Cowboys both finished in third place last season. For competitive balance, the 17th game will be done by conference. In 2021, every AFC team gets nine home games, and in 2022 every AFC team will get eight home games.
This new format gives fans more opportunities to see AFC-NFC matchups that otherwise only happen once every four years.
In the previous format, the Patriots — who hosted the Cowboys in 2019 — wouldn’t have hosted them again until 2027. Other premier matchups for next season created by the 17th game include Packers-Chiefs, Rams-Ravens and Seahawks-Steelers.
Many players aren’t thrilled with the additional game, as it means another week of injury risk. The collective bargaining agreement passed last February by a razor-thin margin of 1,019 players to 959, with the 17th game serving as a major dividing issue. This week, Saints running back Alvin Kamara was one of several players to speak up on Twitter about not being in favor of the extra game.
But the CBA ultimately did pass, and it gave owners the unilateral right to increase the regular season to 17 games. Players who signed contracts prior to February 2020 will get an additional game check for the 17th game. Players who signed after February 2020 will not get an additional check.
The NFL recently finalized $10 billion worth of media rights, and now has labor and media certainty for the next decade.
“The CBA coupled with the media deals usher in an unprecedented era of stability for everyone in the NFL, including our loyal and passionate fans,” Goodell said.
In response to criticism that the NFL is putting players in harm’s way by adding games, Goodell said that players are still playing the same number of games.
“We’re still within the 20-game format. That was something that was important to the NFLPA,” Goodell said. “The highest rate of injury is actually in a preseason game. We’re actually following the data.”
The 17th game also has an international component to it. The NFL has committed to hosting at least four international games per season, meaning each team will be guaranteed to play internationally at least once every eight years. The NFL will continue to host games in London and Mexico City, while also considering venues in Canada, Germany, and South America (likely Brazil).
Teams can still volunteer to host home games in London or elsewhere, but it won’t count toward the four international games and won’t satisfy their obligation. The NFL also did away with the requirement that a team give up a home game for an international game in order to land a Super Bowl.
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.