You wouldn’t know it from looking out the window, but warmer weather, along with the sports that accompany it, is on the way. Major League Baseball is ramping up spring training, and the NFL is getting set to host major meetings soon. Those meetings could have a significant impact on the future of the league’s postseason.
Last year — at the very same gathering— Commissioner Roger Goodell proposed the expansion of the NFL playoffs to 14 teams versus the current 12. Despite the fact that all 32 teams rejected his offer the first time around, Goodell is reportedly back and looking to make the change in time for the 2015 season. While commissioners tend to get what they want eventually, the ambivalence around the league for the expansion is hardly surprising when considering the domino effects a two-team addition would have. Let’s look at some of the issues at stake from both a business and football perspective.
Obviously, front-office concerns will be, as they always are, a major factor in determining whether the league makes the switch. As it stands, the first weekend is a neat and symmetrical package, which works well for the NFL’s broadcast partners.
With two first-round byes per league, that leaves four games in total. NBC, which doesn’t have AFC or NFC specific rights, broadcasts two games in a doubleheader that starts late Saturday afternoon. On the following Sunday, CBS and FOX take over and broadcast the one remaining game for the league to which they have rights.
However, the addition of one more team leaves the league and its broadcast partners with a choice of how to broadcast six games as opposed to four. On one hand they could simply expand the schedule to three games on both Saturday and Sunday. If they kept largely the same TV structure and gave all of the Saturday games to NBC, then that would create problems Sunday, with either FOX or CBS having rights to two games.
While they could rotate the second game between the networks yearly, they would also have to find a way to work it in with the Super Bowl broadcast rotation so that no network gains or loses unreasonably year to year. The NFL is always very careful to play parent between its broadcast partners, ensuring that no network feels slighted or preferred over another.
The commissioner’s answer to this is to move the two extra games to Friday and Monday in primetime. Goodell’s tenure has been marked by a significant expansion of the NFL’s primetime presence on Thursday nights, and it is clear that he views primetime expansion as the future of the NFL’s television presence. Adding more primetime games in the playoffs would be the logical step in this direction.
While two more primetime playoff games would certainly increase advertising revenues for the league and the TV networks, teams hate playing on short weeks as it gives them less time to prepare. Reports from the past two years intimate a strong dislike around the league for playing Monday Night Football for this very reason.
Having fair and competitive games is more important in the playoffs, and playing games on Friday and Monday opens up the possibility that things like travel could significantly impact one team’s chances of moving into the conference championship round.
Yet despite all of the logical challenges commensurate with the expanded playoffs, some argue that having 14 instead of 12 teams would allow for a more open and fair postseason. The NHL, for example, permits a whopping 16 teams to vie for the Stanley Cup. However, making room for the extra teams would require dropping one of the first round byes so that only the top seed would go through to the divisional round as opposed to the top two.
The historical record tells us that the bye is a hugely important advantage. In the past 24 years, a first seed has won the Super Bowl 10 times, the second seed seven times, the third seed only once, the fourth seed three times, the fifth seed once and the sixth seed two times. Look at that massive difference between second and third seed performance. In some cases, it could have been one or even no wins that separated the two teams.
Yet the team with the bye has seven times more championships. So by removing the bye for the second-place team in order to accommodate an extra spot with a statistically low chance of success, Goodell would be shifting the odds more heavily in the favor of the top seed. While the best team all season winning the championship is hardly a bad thing, if your argument for wider playoffs is about increasing “fairness,” then this is not the way to do it.
The NFL is unique among major North American professional leagues in that its playoffs are single-game elimination. That’s what adds so much drama and excitement. But the purpose of a playoff is to find the best team. Right now, the NFL playoffs tend to give us a nice mix of solid performances by the elite teams and enough upsets to keep things interesting. By adding two more teams into the mix and throwing the scheduling and first-round bye up in the air, Goodell risks damage to the NFL’s well-constructed and dependably compelling postseason.
Ethan Chess and Drew Cunningham are seniors in the College. The Third Half appears every Tuesday.