The lasting story from this week in the NFL will not be Dont’a Hightower’s season-ending injury or even JuJu Smith-Schuster’s lost bike (he found it). It will be the apparent efforts of television networks to ease back football oversaturation.
“I do believe that there is a lot of football on and by the time you get to Sunday, there could be a fatigue,” NBC broadcasting and sports chairman Mark Lazarus told Sports Business Journal in a story Monday.
Then, on Wednesday, Fox CEO James Murdoch said that “you’re asking a lot from customers” to watch games in every time slot the NFL offers.
Regardless of your opinion on whether there’s too much football on TV (an argument I’ve made in the past), the people who sign the checks publicly say there is. With the frequent London games on Sunday mornings and the almost-weekly Thursday night games, SBJ reports that NFL game windows (essentially, the number of times football is on) through Week 6 have shot up 22 percent over the past decade. (Meanwhile, college game windows shot up 71 percent over the same time period.) Even if you are one of these people who watches all-22 footage for every game and earnestly follows who wins “Gruden’s Grinders” every Monday, that is still a lot of football if you’re watching all weekend.
If there is football fatigue, that’s a problem for the league because there are no easy solutions. Thin-slicing its schedule for bidders has been a financial boon for the league. The NFL’s goal is $25 billion in revenue by 2027; the league is already over halfway there. But that’s come on the backs of these new windows and the cash they bring in. The rights to the early London game have been sold to streaming services for tens of millions. The Thursday night package is divided among CBS, NBC, and the NFL Network, ensuring rights fees (roughly $450 million per year) from the first two and a hefty subscriber base for the league-owned network. As SBJ reports, media executives have informally lobbied the league for a rollback on the number of Thursday-night games and to kill the Sunday morning London time slot.
The NFL has a ratings problem. Ratings were down 5 percent last week when compared with the same week last year and 18 percent compared with two years ago. Within this, the NFL’s specific conundrum is that it can either solve the oversaturation problem with fewer game windows or it can decide to keep making more money. I’m going to level with you: The answer will not involve taking less money.
If the ratings problem is tied into the nation’s football fatigue, perhaps there is a solution that would also help the players: a midseason break. It may be the only way for the NFL to keep all its game windows (and its money), and at the same time renew the public’s appetite for the NFL at the midway point of the season. Just take a week off. Reset the batteries. Go to the park, catch up on Mr. Robot, whatever. Just no football for a week. It’d satisfy the league’s bottom line, but it would also help improve player health. There’s already a built-in bye week, of course, but that probably isn’t enough rest for a modern game that gets faster and more brutal with each passing season.
There’s anecdotal evidence that injuries are wrecking the NFL. The league has already lost one of its top quarterbacks (Aaron Rodgers), wideouts (Odell Beckham Jr.), and running backs (David Johnson) to lengthy absences, but that could just be a grim coincidence. Leaguewide, though, the problem stretches deeper. A study from Harvard found that, on a per-regular-season-game basis, from 2009 to 2015 there were around six injuries a game in the NFL—and there were almost seven injuries per game in 2015, over an injury more per game than in 2009, though changes in how players are reported to be injured makes strict comparisons hard. But the study also concluded that there are 3.4 times as many injuries in an NFL game than the combined rates of the other major American sports. Maybe it’s as simple as this: As Tom Brady once said, the injury rate in the NFL is 100 percent.
The sport has other problems—quality of play appears to be at an all-time low—and it’s impossible to tell whether more rest would help there, but it certainly wouldn’t be a major hindrance to the cause, either. Ahead of a weekend with no games between two teams with winning records, maybe it is time for a short break.
The NFL schedule is a special case among sports. No pro league plays fewer games or has such strict caps on the number and duration of full-contact practices.
The German Bundesliga—also known as “the league whose attendance per game is second only to the NFL”—takes a break from December 18 until January 12. La Liga in Spain takes a break for the holidays. The English Premier League does not take any break—a matter of much debate and an oft-cited reason for some of the country’s footballing shortcomings. Since 2014, the NBA has given its players eight days off for the All-Star break. The smartest NBA teams are finding ways to give even more rest to players, and the NBA started its season earlier this year to try to limit the number of back-to-backs.
The NFL season is a grind. You typically get one full off day during a game week, and that, typically, still features medical treatment of some sort, so it’s never a true off day. If a team has an early bye week, the season can be especially brutal. In 2009, the NFL floated the idea of a season with extra games that ended toward the end of February—but that plan died when the notion of an expanded 17- or 18-game season was knocked down. NFL commissioner Roger Goodell has said in recent years he wants to add an extra playoff game in each conference—a bizarre idea considering how few good teams there seem to be.
If you wanted to institute a leaguewide break, around this point of the year would be the right time. Gone are the years when the NFL could trounce the World Series in the ratings; last year’s World Series beat Sunday Night Football handily. There’s an argument—and it’s been made in the NFL’s league office—that the league should find a way to compete with every other sport all the time. The league used to take a week off from Sunday Night Football during the World Series, but hasn’t this decade. A break in Week 8 would prevent the league from directly competing with the Fall Classic.
Giving players two weeks off—one of them for the entire league at the same time—would also address the unfairness created by the lopsided schedules across the league.
Mark Karwan, a professor of operations research, industrial and systems engineering at the University of Buffalo, studies the NFL schedule and told me the uneven bye weeks create huge disadvantages. Karwan says the main problem is the lack of equal rest for teams playing each other.
Academics have established that well-rested teams have an advantage over tired teams. But Karwan’s study found a bigger problem: Some teams, over time, draw unfair numbers of games against teams who are well-rested, and it never evens out. That reality reared its head last year when the Eagles played three straight games against teams coming off of a bye, and they went 1-2. In 2013, the Buffalo Bills complained about their schedule, which featured five teams with extra rest. An extra bye week wouldn’t necessarily eliminate all of these problems, but it would ensure that teams were generally more well-rested.
The NFL brands itself as a 24/7/365 league—so if the extra week pushed the season back into the end of February, that would be fine. Hell, if it pushed the Super Bowl into Presidents’ Day weekend, that would really help football fans; they’d have the following Monday off from work.
There’s too much football—for the fans and especially for the players. But the league won’t eliminate games from the schedule, so a midseason break is the next best thing. If the season has to be this long, at least make it manageable.