This question is an important one because, if the regular season is expanded, the players would see a reasonable increase in their real workload, one for which they would expect to be compensated. The first blush answer is that they'd be getting 19 paychecks instead of 17. As former Buccaneers defensive end Steve White pointed out, though, this is nonsense: the 19 paychecks instead of 17 is an accounting fiction. A similar argument would be if you went from being paid once a month to twice a month: you'd be getting more checks, but the same amount of money. The only way the players get more money if they're paid 19 times instead of 17 times is if the two additional games actually make more money. So, do they?
Well, let's look at how NFL teams make their money. Thankfully, we have somewhat detailed information on one team's financial revenues, the publicly-owned Green Bay Packers. Let's take a look at the statement of income, and the sources of income listed there:
I. Home games (net) and road games;
II. Television and media;
III. Private box income;
IV. NFL Properties income;
V. Marketing/Pro Shop (net); and
VI. Other-Local Media, Concessions and parking (net).
Let's take a look at each of these categories in turn:
I. Ticket Revenues
I've retitled this "ticket revenues" to try to simplify the category. For fiscal year end 3/31/09, the Packers earned slightly over $47 million in ticket revenue from their 20 games, 4 preseason and 16 regular season. As people have frequently written, NFL season ticket holders pay full price for all 10 home games, including preseason games. Whether or not this is a good business practice for the NFL is a topic for a different post, but unless NFL teams raise ticket prices, they will not see any bump in ticket revenue from season ticket holders in an expanded season. Any bump then will be from an increase in the number of tickets sold.
The NFL in recent years has enjoyed excellent attendance. Per ESPN's figures, total regular season attendance was 17,146,404, for a total of almost 67,500 per game. Per The Official NFL Record and Fact Book 2010, regular season paid attendance was actually 16,651,126, or an average of 65,043 per game. Preseason attendance, thanks largely to those season ticket holders, was also very good: 3,810,074 total, or an average of 59,186 per game once you subtract out the Hall of Fame game. For a 10 game home regular season slate, the average team thus drew 638,720 fans.
For simplicity's sake, I will assume that the average regular season attendance will also be the average regular season attendance for the 2 additional regular season games, and preseason average attendance will also remain the same. The new, expanded regular season slate sees the average team draw a total of 644,577 fans per game, a total of 5,857 additional fans. Using the Green Bay Packers as representative, which they almost certainly are not, they would make an additional $433,505 in ticket revenue from both home and road games from the expanded season. This is a revenue bump of .92%.
II. Television and Media
Ah, the single largest category of the Packers' income. 38.1% of their income from FYE 3/31/09 came in this category, and the broadcast networks should be falling all over themselves for the right to pay NFL teams more money for two additional regular season weeks, right? After all, 19 weeks instead of 17 weeks = 12% bump in revenue, right?
Well, let's not be too hasty. First, who does the NFL make money from? Well, beginning this year, DirecTV is paying $1 billion a year for the NFL. That's an easy 1.12 billion, an extra 117 million in revenue, right? No, almost certainly not. It's not clear how many subscribers there are with Sunday Ticket. Per this article from August 2009, there are about 2 million of us paying something like $300 a year for Sunday Ticket. That's $600 million in revenue, and DirecTV paid the NFL $700 million in 2009 and will be paying that $1 billion this year. Is DirecTV insane?
I guess it's possible, but almost certainly not. DirecTV's Sunday Ticket subscribers pay DirecTV not just that $300 for Sunday Ticket, but also an additional amount of money for regular monthly subscriptions. Some of that $1 billion reflects the weekly operating profit, such as it is, but some of it reflects brand value to DirecTV for the subscriber exclusivity. How much of the $1 billion goes to each figure? I'm really not sure, but I'd estimate at least half is the existence of the subscribers in the first place. The per-week revenue thus looks more like $30 million dollars, so a 2 week bump might move the contract from $1 billion to $1.06 billion. That's a nice extra chunk of change, but only half of the bump in the length of the regular season. That's not too bad, because the other contracts will pay us more, right?
This is, once again, likely overoptimistic. CBS, Fox, and NBC get the right not just to regular season games, but also to postseason games, including the Super Bowl on a three-year cycle. Figuring out how much revenue they get off those games is a difficult exercise, requiring a much more detailed knowledge of ad rates and revenue and ratings than I possess, so I'm going to do some extraordinarily rough approximation. For regular season games, I will ballpark it at 15 million viewers per game, based off this article and this one. For playoffs, I will estimate 25 million viewers for each wild card game, 30 million for each divisional round game, and 45 million for the conference championships, plus 90 million for the Super Bowl. Again, for simplicity's sake, I will assume each viewer is worth the same amount, which probably isn't true. I will also ignore preseason revenue, since it's almost certainly a minuscule part of these contracts.
ESPN is probably easiest. They're paying the NFL $1.1 billion a year, so they're closest to a 12% bump. This is almost certainly still overoptimistic; as with DirecTV, getting ESPN is optional, so they're almost certainly including some brand value in that huge amount. I will conservatively estimate this at maybe $100 million. That's $58.8 million per week, or an extra $117.6 million the NFL might be able to expect from two extra weeks of Monday Night Football.
For CBS and Fox, I'm not including any brand value in my calculation. This is almost certainly wrong in a way that overstates the potential increase in revenues. After all, brand value was why Fox paid the NFL so much money in the first place, since it induced the creation of new Fox affiliates. By now, though, both networks have affiliates all across the country and won't see that sort of big bump, so I'll ignore any value to other shows. Using those viewership numbers, each network draws roughly 550 million viewers a year. That assumes 26 regular season games, 1 wild card game, 2 divisional round games, 1 conference championship, and a Super Bowl every 3 years. With the expanded season, they'd each show 3 additional games (1 double-header, 1 single week), so they'd see an increase to 595 million viewers, or 8.2%. Per this article, Fox and CBS paid an aggregate of about $1.335 billion before signing extensions with increases roughly 4% in May 2009. Post-extension, that amount was $1.388 billion, so an 8.2% increase on that increases the amount to a hair over $1.5 billion.
With NBC, the math is similar to CBS and NBC. After the 2009 extension with a similar 4% increase, they paid roughly $624 million per year. Assuming the same 15 million per game, 25 million per wild card and 90 million per Super Bowl every 3 years, an expanded season increases NBC's total viewership from 335 million to 365 million, an average increase of about 9%. That's an increase of about $55 million in our hypothetical TV contract world.
Overall, adding up those television contracts, we have a total bump from $4.112 billion to $4.459 billion, or 8.4%, far short of the almost 12% bump needed to pay players the same amount per game.
III. Private Box Income
$12.8 million dollars or revenue, or a slightly over 5%. I don't think ticket revenue is included. For realism purposes, I'll assume a regular season game is three times as valuable as a preseason game. An increase from 8 regular season games to 9 thus increases the value of this category about 7.7%. I'm not very confident in that number, but that sounds reasonable, and I don't think it's completely insane.
IV. Licensing Income
I've re-described this as licensing revenue. I think that's where almost all of NFL Properties' income comes from, but (Other NFL income) and the good-size increase in this category of late leads me to believe NFL Network revenue is also included in this category. Estimating the potential increase in this category from an expanded season is difficult. My inclination is to think licensing revenue would expand very little, if at all, from an expanded season, but that NFL Network might provide more revenue, especially if it picks up another regular season game, which seems likely (though, again, there's a brand value issue there). I think a reasonable increase is no more than a 5% bump in this category from an expanded regular season.
V. Marketing/Pro Shop
This is another category where the potential increase is difficult to quantify. In a most optimistic world, I'd assume all of the revenue comes from gameday, and people at regular season games spend an above-average amount, say 50% more than people at preseason games. I doubt this is actually true, but I'm trying to weight this analysis in a way that mildly but reasonably in favor of increasing revenues. In that case, that'd be a 6.1% increase in this category. That's almost certainly much too high, but I'll stick with it.
VI. Other-Local Media, Concessions, and parking
Local media is very difficult to quantify; a true evaluation would require something at least as detailed as the TV contract analysis. It might reach the 12% regular season bump, but probably not. It actually might fall, since it includes the Packers' revenue from televising 4 preseason games. Concessions and parking will probably follow attendance, more or less. I'm tempted to use for this category the same .92% increase I used for attendance, but I will instead very roughly guesstimate it at 2% increase.
ConclusionAll of the above numbers should be taken with a MASSIVE grain of salt. All of them also, though, represent my best guess at a reasonable but optimistic estimate of how much additional revenue might be out there from expanding the NFL regular season from 16 to 18 games. Plugging those increases into the actual numbers from Green Bay's financial report gives an estimate total revenue amount of almost $262 million, an increase of 5.67%. On a per-game basis, the players aren't making the same amount, they're making over 6% LESS. Obviously, the owners can offset that by doing things like raising ticket prices, but I don't think they're too too interested in double-digit percentage increases in the current economic climate. The "enchanced" season doesn't look like a winner for the players.
What's really going on?
While in law school, I fell under the baleful influence of a professor who once said that his mantra was, "First, I figure out what's really going on. Then, I figure out what the law should be." Why is Roger Goodell advocating for the players to play less and make less money per-game? Doesn't he know that the NFL won't really make that much extra money from moving to an 18-game season? The question to that is almost certainly yes, so why does he do this?
First, I think he's right (shudder... I hate acknowledging that) that there really is a level of popular discontent over the 4-game preseason, especially from media people and season ticket holders who feel like they're getting screwed. These people, especially the latter, are probably wrong, but as I mentioned way up there, that's a subject for a different post. Proposing an expanded regular season allows Roger Rex to make nice with these people.
More importantly, though, it's a negotiating tactic. By this point, the owner's strategy is clear: they're going to approach the players with their dream offer. This is a revenue pool that's roughly 18% smaller than the current revenue pool, plus an expanded season. The expanded season will enhance the size of the revenue pool, so the players won't make 18% less but maybe 12% less. It's not being presented in quite this manner, but that's what's really going on. The NFLPA's current strategy is trying to present the expanded season and the size of the revenue pool as two separate issues, focusing on what seems like an essential fairness when it comes to playing 18 regular season games instead of 16. What I think they're trying not to do is to draw an explicit linkage between an expanded season and a decrease revenue amount. When they do that, the NFL will then be able to make a relatively persuasive argument that "Ok, we'll drop the 18-game season idea, and give you less money, and you agreed to that." That is what the NFLPA is trying to avoid.
Frankly, I don't think the NFL is, or at least should be, particularly serious about the 18-game season. If my numbers are close to right, it doesn't make anywhere near as much money as you'd expect from a basic 16 to 18 game comparison, and the players really don't like it. It is, instead, primarily a negotiating tactic and media ploy, and should and will be dropped when the labor negotiations get serious.
UPDATE (8/4/10 2031 CT): Thanks to Chris at Smart Football for linking to this. For those coming here directly, see this discussion of the article at Football Outsiders. One of the commenters there brings up a very good point, that I focused on revenue rather than profits. This is quite true, and it's a different calculus from that perspective. Focusing on profit, something like 58% of the $14 million in added revenue will go to player costs. The other question is how much non-player revenue costs increase. Since the NFL would be sticking with the 20-game season, I don't think non-player costs would go up very much if at all. In that case, at least $7 million of that $8 million might be straight profit for the NFL.
If so, then an 18-game season seems much more like a financial winner for NFL owners. If that is indeed the case, then it's possible the NFL might see the 18-game season as much more than the kind of negotiating tactic I thought it was. The problem remains, though, that you have to get the players to agree to it first. To use an example from the FO thread, it's like paying the independent contractor $20/hour to work from 9-5, then asking him to stay from 5 until 6 and paying him $10 for that added hour. 9-6 for $190 might make sense; $10 on top of $180 for that extra hour is a tougher sell.
UPDATE #2 (5/25/11 2246 CT): In January 2011, NFL outside counsel Bob Batterman at a press conference estimated the additional revenue from the move to an 18-game season at $500 million. The numbers I set forth in this post produced additional revenue of approximately $450 million. I don't absolutely trust Batterman's comment to be the absolute best estimate possible, but I don't think it's an indication I wasn't completely down the wrong path.
My thinking on the likelihood and desirability (from a financial perspective) of the 18-game season has changed over time, both before and since I wrote this post. As it currently stands, I believe it's likely to be part of the eventual settlement between the players and owners, but that's a subject for a longer post I have yet to write. I just want to note, though, that I don't necessarily still agree with the analysis in either the post or the earlier update.