Night Owls (and Seahawks and Chargers and Rams)

Why the NFL’s future may include west coast primetime games.

In a tradition as banal as butter on toast, Roger Goodell held a press conference today at the NFL owner’s meetings in Fort Lauderdale.

There wasn’t a whole lot of news for the league’s semi-beloved Commissioner to chat about. The league’s finances are great. The formerly chronic stadium issues of the California teams have been resolved. Players are relatively pleased with the ever-rising salary cap. Ho hum. Business as usual.

Of course, for any ambitious business (and most NFL clubs certainly qualify as those), business as usual causes some degree of consternation. “You’re either growin’ or you’re dyin’, there ain’t no third direction,” was the wisened view of Brian Dennehy’s Big Tom character in ‘Tommy Boy’, and he’s more right than wrong. Businesses that try to hold on to what they got tend to end up like Radio Shack

The NFL has one idea for growin’ that was batted around at this week’s owner’s meetings: a 17-game regular season schedule.

Eighteen games, which makes all the sense in the world for all sorts of reasons — revenue, television, scheduling, and more — has been poo-poohed by the media and a handful of activist players, which more or less kills it dead in this day and age. NFL union honcho DeMaurice Smith views today’s mainstream media as a major ally of the players. Maintaining that alliance is essential for keeping Mr. Smith employed in his highly paid, high profile position. (Plus he wants to be a Democratic Senator some day. Fawning media coverage is required for ascension to such positions.)

Things that make sense tend to happen eventually, and the Worldwide Reader’s money is on an eighteen game future. That is a deep future, however, and thus we have seventeen games.

One of the major questions surrounding the seventeen game schedule is fairness, and the NFL’s solution — a sensible one, in the Worldwide Reader’s eyes — is neutral site games. Every team would have eight home games, eight road games, and one neutral site game.

Neutral site games have been a prickly subject among some fans. For example, yours truly is a Los Angeles based Chargers fan (rare, I know) who would have to hop a big, beautiful wall (or book a flight to Meh-he-coh day-effe) to witness the most attractive game of the home schedule: the Chiefs game on November 18th.

A seventeen game schedule could lessen the blow of the Shield’s efforts to globalize the game by getting every team to a foreign land (or college campus, perhaps) once a year, while preserving local eight tailgating opportunities per annum.

Of course, sixteen neutral site games is a big jump from five, and that’s what Goodell & company would require if the seventeen game season becomes a thing.

The math starts to get tricky after a while. London has a purpose-built NFL stadium, which maybe could host four to six games on its own. Azteca in D.F. could do two, perhaps more. Toronto wasn’t exactly a resounding success, but they were stuck with the Bills. Hawaii? Berlin? The pickins’ start to get awfully slim awfully quick.

Part of the problem (and we’re finally getting to the point of this scribble) is time zones. 6 pm in London works. 7 pm in Mexico City works. 9 am in Tokyo doesn’t. 11 am in Melbourne really doesn’t either, nor does 8 am in LeBron’s favorite city, Beijing. And those last three are the times that coincide with 8 pm Eastern time. Try to play an afternoon game in Asia/Oceania, and it gets even uglier.

What if a few NFL games kick off three hours after 8 pm Eastern time? What if the NFL opens up a television window at 8 pm Pacific time for a few weeks each season. Then things get interesting.

An NFL game at 11:30 am or 2:30 pm could potentially work. The schedule would be a mite tricky, as 8:30 pm Pacific time on a Sunday would be 2:30 Melbourne time on a Monday. The Worldwide Reader would hate to see the NFL stomp on the Pac 12’s ownership of that late night Saturday timeslot (sarcasm!), but it says here that large swaths of the Seattle metro area would find a way to handle a Saturday 8:30 pm Seahawks game in crystal clear 4K.

Fox’s current contract for Thursday nights in East Coast primetime guarantees the league an average of $660 million in exchange for the rights to eleven games per year. $60 million per game ain’t happenin’ for Saturdays in West Coast primetime. Thursdays are more valuable than Saturdays because movie studios and car companies want to prep the masses for a spendy weekend, and an 11:30 pm east coast start time would ding viewership for half the country.

Six international games airing on Saturday nights at 8:30 on the west coast (say, two each in Japan, China and Australia) might be able to bag $250 million for the league, just on the domestic TV side. Throw in the benefits of giving three billion or so Asians the option to watch NFL football at a reasonable time of day (NFL timeslots are currently 10:30 pm, 1:55 am, and 5:50 am in Mumbai; this would add a 9 am game on Sunday mornings). It becomes an idea that could very well happen, if the NFL moves to a seventeen game regular season.

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