NFL likely to expand to 17-game season in 2021 after new TV deals signed

By Matt Johnson
Feb 7, 2020; Tampa, FL, USA; General view of the NFL Shield logo on the field before Super Bowl LV between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Kansas City Chiefs at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

As NFL teams prepare for free agency and the 2021 NFL Draft, league officials are working to shape the 2021 season and the future of broadcasting for the next decade.

The league is closing in on new TV contracts with its broadcasting partners that will generate more than $100 billion in revenue and change the way fans watch football in future seasons. While negotiations with ESPN and settling the destination for Thursday Night Football remain hurdles, contracts could be finalized within the next two weeks.

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Once the deals are announced, the NFL could make an announcement that will alter the game forever and begin immediately in the 2021 season.

Will NFL expand to 17 games in 2021?

According to Sports Illustrated’s Albert Breer, the finalization of new TV contracts will likely trigger the NFL to exercise its option to expand to a 17-game schedule next season.

When the players union approved the new CBA last offseason, it granted the league permission to expand the regular season unilaterally. Team owners have waited years for the opportunity and are now expected to take advantage.

Expanding to a 17-game schedule has been the league’s plan since the CBA was signed. In December, details emerged about the specifics of how an expanded regular-season schedule would look. Among the changes, each team will play an additional intraconference matchup beginning in 2021. The move would come just a year after the league expanded the playoffs to 14 teams, which eliminated one first-round bye from each conference and created another Wild Card Round game on Saturday and Sunday.

All of this is being done to increase revenue. It’s estimated the NFL lost nearly $3 billion dollars of its traditional revenue this past year, the result of the COVID-19 pandemic. With many teams playing in empty stadiums or in front of fewer than 15,000 fans, profits generated from game-day sales plummeted. Meanwhile, with many feeling the financial ramifications from the pandemic, fans spent less money.

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As a result, the 2021 NFL salary cap is dropping for the first time in more than a decade. Many clubs will reduce their spending in the offseason, countless veteran players are being cut and many free agents will be taking pay cuts this spring. Because of all that will happen this year, the league is looking for ways to increase revenue.

New television contracts will go a long way in turning things around. Much like the NFL profited off playoff expansion, moving to a 17-game schedule will generate even more money for the league. While players are against it, due to the increased risks to their health, the CBA gave away the chance to prevent this from happening.

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Once a 17-game schedule is implemented, additional changes will be made. Among them, Super Bowl LVI will likely be pushed back. While the 202 Super Bowl is tentatively scheduled for Feb. 6 at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles, the creation of Week 18 will likely push the biggest NFL game of the year back a week.