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Expansion to 17-game season promises to keep NFL growing

It has been 44 years since the NFL last changed its season, which is a good indication of how momentous and sometimes fraught the decision to play more regular-season games has been. On Tuesday, owners finally completed a stretch they've been attempting for at least a decade, voting to expand the regular season from 16 games to 17 games, starting this fall. Owners, few of whom are known for their patience, took the first opportunity to extend the regular season given to them by the new collective bargaining agreement that was approved by owners and -- it's important to remember -- the NFL Players Association a year ago.

Team owners and representatives from the NFLPA have been discussing adding at least one game since at least 2010. At one point early in the negotiations that resulted in the old CBA, the conversation centered around 18 regular-season games. After player pushback, the deal was approved in 2011 without an expanded season.

The idea never went away, though. There was then, as now, never any real question that adding a regular-season game and deleting a preseason game would be appealing to fans and broadcasters. Adding games that count in exchange for meaningless action featuring players who are unlikely to make the final roster is an easy choice and an obvious way to boost the bottom line.

The issue was whether everyone could get comfortable enough with the wear and tear of another game, and whether the game had evolved enough to mitigate that strain. That additional riches from new media contracts would flow to both owners and players undoubtedly soothed some of the angst surrounding the decision. And the chance to use some of the new additional games to fill an international schedule appealed to those officials imagining what the future of the game might look like for the next generation of players and the owners.

But the slim margin by which players approved the CBA last March -- just as the country was shutting down because of the COVID-19 pandemic -- indicated at least some ambivalence about the immediate impact of the centerpiece part of the compromise that will govern the NFL through the 2030 season.

What ultimately swayed leadership from the league and the union that a 17th game could be added -- aside from, yes, the money -- was, in part, injury data that indicates preseason games have the highest injury and concussion rates of any activity, including practices and regular-season games. Preseason games, especially what used to be the fourth game, are often played by less-experienced players desperate to make a roster -- giving rise to less-skilled and more dangerous plays. Exchanging a preseason game for an additional week of regular-season practice and games should cause what officials consider a negligible difference in injury risk. That, of course, is easier to say when sitting in a boardroom instead of a locker room. But the belief among those officials is that changes to rules to limit hits on defenseless players and low hits that cause knee injuries, better helmet technology and more stringent concussion protocols have helped modulate injury rates and make regular-season games somewhat safer than they were even a decade ago.

There are surely more changes to come to try to limit injuries as much as possible now that the regular season will be longer. The offseason work schedule -- already a source of conversation because players loved the pandemic-induced virtual-only offseason -- is likely to change. The structure of training camp will almost certainly incorporate an acclimation period to try to reduce knee and hamstring injuries. And without a fourth preseason game, teams will have two weeks to recover between the last preseason game and the first regular-season game.

Players will still understandably look at an additional regular-season game as additional physical risk for them and question whether any CBA is affording them enough protection now and after they retire. The tradeoff, though, was significant: In coming years, players will share in the new media deals -- propelled in part by the promise of more games -- reportedly valued at more than $100 billion. That will send the salary cap back up significantly after it dropped this year because of pandemic-related revenue losses. That the CBA was ultimately approved by union members last March says that the slim majority of them believe that was a fair trade.

For fans, the rewards are more inarguable and straightforward. The 17-game regular season starts this fall, meaning the universally hated preseason shrinks. AFC teams will host nine regular-season home games this season (the NFC goes next season, and they alternate thereafter). The scheduling formula -- teams from opposing conferences that finished in the same place within their divisions the previous season will face off – will give us matchups like Cowboys-Patriots and Packers-Chiefs this fall. It's a clear win.

A resolution reviewed by owners means international fans are expected to benefit from a scheduling formula that, starting in 2022, would have four of the teams from the conference with the nine home games playing an international game. That means international fans, who had been dependent on teams agreeing to give up a home game, will now be assured of seeing all 32 teams over an eight-year period. Putting the best teams and biggest stars in other countries will be important as the NFL turns its attention to expanding the popularity of the sport in other parts of the world -- a key future growth opportunity.

That won't be enough to convince every player -- or, indeed, every fan -- that a 17th game is worth it. It took more than 40 years to expand the season beyond 16 games, long past the time it was clear the NFL was the most powerful entertainment brand in the country. That alone indicates what a delicate decision this is. But if the last year proved anything, it is that the NFL is a very successful business, and an additional regular-season game keeps that business growing. That's a victory for almost everyone. Can those charged with producing a safer NFL make as many good decisions as the business people have in the last year? That would make it a win for many years to come for even those who will most feel the impact of the 17th game on Monday mornings.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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