It’s happening. On Sunday, news broke that the NFL Players Association voted to pass the proposed collective bargaining agreement by a narrow margin, 1,019 to 959. The deal was previously passed by the league’s owners in February, and now that both sides have approved it the NFL is set to change in ways not seen since at least 2002—and more like 1978.
Starting this upcoming season, the NFL playoffs will feature two additional participants, going from 12 teams to 14. The second-seeded team in each conference will now play on wild-card weekend against a seventh seed that previously wouldn’t have qualified for the postseason. That means there will be six games on wild-card weekend instead of the previous four, giving an advantage to each conference’s top seed at the expense of the second seed. Last season this would have meant a wild-card weekend that pitted the Chiefs against the Steelers and the Packers against the Rams.
The league will change even more in 2021, when the number of regular-season games jumps from 16 to 17. That’s the first change to the length of the league’s season since 1978, when it expanded from 14 to 16 games. This feels like a precursor to an eventual 18-game season—what kind of league plays an odd number of games? It’s not yet clear how the league will balance home and away scheduling with the odd number.
The deal also adjusts league economics. The players’ share of league revenue will jump from 47 percent to at least 48 percent beginning in 2021 (and up to 48.8 percent, depending on media deal kickers). And the CBA increases the league’s minimum salary depending on level of experience. A player with less than a year of experience is set to earn $510,000 under the existing deal; under the new CBA, that salary will rise to $610,000.
Roster sizes will increase from 53 to 55, and practice squads will increase from 10 to 12 in 2020 and 12 to 14 starting in 2022. Active game-day rosters will jump from 46 to 48. And for first-round picks, fifth-year options will now become fully guaranteed and tied to performance, increasing the payouts for many of the league’s top young players.
There’s an immediate impact to 2020 free agency, too. In recent years, teams have been able to tag two players each offseason, one with a franchise tag and one with a transition tag. Now franchises will have to pick one tag or the other, but won’t be able to use both. That presents difficult decisions for teams like the Cowboys, who have several big-name free agents (Amari Cooper, Dak Prescott) who could have warranted a tag.
Zooming out, there are benefits increases for both active and retired players. Current players will receive boosts to the level of 401k matching they’ll receive, and will see their pensions go up by 10 percent. They will get other benefits to tuition reimbursement, life insurance, injury protection, and termination pay, among other things. Retired players will get a boost to their pensions as well.
Discipline changes under the new agreement. Fines will be reduced for on-field violations, and a neutral decision-maker will be installed to make most of the decisions about fines—that responsibility will no longer belong to commissioner Roger Goodell. The threshold for THC testing becomes more lax, and players will no longer be able to be suspended for a positive THC test.
The new agreement also affects player workload. The preseason will be reduced to three games, with a bye week in between the final preseason game and the first regular-season game. Training camp practices will be drastically reduced. Under the existing CBA, teams could hold 28 of them; now, that number will go down to 16. Additionally, padded practices will reduce in duration from three hours to two and a half hours.
The new CBA runs through 2030, giving the league and players 11 years of stability. That will allow the NFL to negotiate some lucrative new television contracts. But stability is an odd way of putting it—this is the biggest overhaul of the league in decades.