The NFL’s decision to compel teams to play up to two short-week games per year and its sudden progress toward allowing late-season Thursday games to be moved to Sunday, and vice-versa, carries with it a deeper message.
The expanded use of short weeks and the inclination to shuffle games from Thursdays to Sundays and Sundays to Thursdays suggests a not-too-distant future in which the NFL stages weekly games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. And perhaps, eventually, on Fridays and Saturdays.
If the league continues to adhere to the notion that football played on short rest is no more dangerous than football played on normal rest, it’s just a matter of time before the league insists that there’s no impact on player health and safety by hopscotching the scheduling of games around the various days of the week.
“I think we have data that’s very clear,” Commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters at the league meetings, regarding playing on Sunday and then on Thursday. “It doesn’t show higher injury rate. But we recognize shorter weeks. We went through this in COVID, too. We had to have a lot of flexibility in those areas.”
The reference to COVID is the biggest clue that Tuesday and Wednesday football is coming, since the changes necessitated by the pandemic resulted in games being played on those two rarely-used days of the week.
If the league plans to hang its hat on the contention that only three days off between games isn’t a health and safety concern, then four and five days off between games isn’t a concern, either.
It will complicate the scheduling process for the NFL, but it will be worth it (in the league’s view) to pull games from the cluster of 1:00 p.m. ET kickoffs and move them into standalone prime-time windows that will gather millions of live viewers.
The NFL may not stop at Tuesday and Wednesday. Although the league’s broadcast antitrust exemption hinges on not televising games on Friday nights or Saturdays between Labor Day weekend and the middle of December, the very real question of whether the Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 even encompasses the league’s pivot to streaming will eventually require a tweak to the law. If it’s expanded to expressly include for-pay Internet-based broadcasts, why not slide away from the arguably outdated obsession with protecting high school and college football against NFL infringement?
The Friday night game could start at 9:00 p.m. ET, giving many high schools a chance to work around that window, if they so choose. Or if a high-school game is being played at a time when an NFL game is being televised, the folks attending the high-school game can watch the pro game on their phone.
For Saturdays, it would be one game and one game only, also played at night. College football all day. Pro football from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. ET. And then a late-night West Coast college game after that to end the day.
College football might not appreciate it, but college football surely didn’t like it when the NFL took over Thursdays, which once upon a time featured meaningful NCAA contests.
As the NFL gets larger and more successful, it feels as if nothing will stop if from blasting through any and all arguments and impediments to doing whatever it wants. And if the NFL wants to stage a prime-time game every night of the week from Week One through Week 18, the NFL will.
Is that good for players? Is it good for in-stadium fans? The fact that the NFL shrugs at those concerns regarding the expansion to multiple Sunday-to-Thursday turnarounds and the looming adoption of Thursday night flexing already answers the question of whether the NFL cares about such matters.
Put simply, all that really matters to the league is prioritizing the people who watch games on TV or other devices, because those are the people who congregate in the millions to watch live NFL football. And those are the consumers who will fuel a reality in which each major network and streaming platform will pay a staggering price per year to purchase at least one night of each and every week of each and every season.
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