NFL expands regular season, approves new international strategy

The National Football League (NFL) will change its season structure for the first time since 1978 after clubs voted to approve measures that will also usher in a new system to allocate international games.

First reported on Friday, NFL clubs gathered yesterday (Tuesday) for a virtual league meeting, approving an enhanced season structure that, beginning in 2021, will feature each team playing 17 regular-season games and three preseason games for the first time.

The Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) signed between the League and the players’ union (NFLPA) in March 2020 enabled the League to make the change, with the NFL having followed a structure of 16 regular-season and four preseason games since 1978.

The change has also been made in the wake of the lucrative new domestic broadcast agreements agreed earlier this month. The deals with five partners cover the 2023-33 seasons and are worth more than $110bn (£80.1bn/€93.8bn) in total.

“This is a monumental moment in NFL history,” said NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. “The CBA with the players and the recently completed media agreements provide the foundation for us to enhance the quality of the NFL experience for our fans. And one of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world.”

The 17th game will feature teams from opposing conferences that finished in the same place within their division the previous season. Under the new scheduling formula, every team will play 17 regular-season games with one bye week. Clubs will host 10 games overall – either nine regular-season games and one preseason game or eight regular-season games and two preseason games.

The official 2021 schedule, with playing dates and times, will be announced later this spring. However, NFL Kickoff Weekend will begin on September 9, and the regular season will end on January 9, 2022. The 2022 Pro Bowl will be played on February 6 at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas and the season will conclude with Super Bowl LVI at SoFi Stadium in Los Angeles on February 13.

The enhanced season will ensure that, beginning in 2022, all 32 clubs will play internationally at least once every eight years. The NFL said the scheduling of up to four neutral-site games per year in a country outside the United States will focus initially on Canada, Europe, Mexico, South America and the United Kingdom. In addition, interested clubs can continue to volunteer to play home games internationally, as is currently the case.

While some teams, such as the Jacksonville Jaguars, have made multiple forays outside the US, others have played only once, or in the Green Bay Packers’ case not at all. The NFL first began playing regular-season games outside the US at London’s Wembley Stadium in 2007. Since that point, the League has scheduled a further 37 international games, with 27 in London, six in Toronto and four in Mexico City.

The NFL was last season forced to cancel its international games, with the decision taken to keep the League in the US amid COVID-19. The NFL had been scheduled to play one game at the Estadio Azteca and two each at Wembley and Tottenham Hotspur Stadium during the 2020 season. The Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons, Jaguars and Miami Dolphins had been due to serve as home teams during these fixtures.

The Jaguars had been due to become the first NFL team to play multiple ‘home’ games outside the US in the same regular season, having been pencilled in to host two fixtures at Wembley. The Jaguars have taken one ‘home’ game to London every year since 2013 as part of a long-term arrangement.

The NFL’s US-based 2020 season saw 119 games have fan attendance in some capacity, with around 1.2 million fans in total. Fan attendance was determined by teams’ local COVID-19 restrictions. Notably, the Los Angeles Rams and Chargers (SoFi Stadium), as well as the Las Vegas Raiders (Allegiant Stadium) were forced to play their entire seasons behind closed doors at their new homes.

Regarding hopes for 2021, Goodell said, according to the Associated Press news agency: “We’re discussing plans to welcome back all fans across the country at all stadiums. All of us want to see every one of our fans back. Football is not the same without fans, and we expect to have full stadiums in the upcoming season.”