How many millions the NFL is making from extra games this year

January 13, 2022, 5:30 PM UTC
Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs
Patrick Mahomes of the Kansas City Chiefs sets to pass against the Denver Broncos on Jan. 8 in Denver.
Dustin Bradford—Getty Images

When the Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles take the field for this weekend’s NFL wild-card playoff games, they can thank the almighty dollar for being there.

Pennsylvania’s two pro football squads, both the lowest seeds in their respective conferences, made the postseason this year only because the nation’s most popular sports league continues to pad its already robust bottom line with more games.

The NFL stands to make hundreds of millions of extra dollars in 2021–22 via its expanded schedule, which includes one extra week of regular season games completed last Sunday and two additional first-round playoff clashes set for this weekend, public documents and media reports show. 

Slightly more than half of that money will flow to the league’s 32 owners, with the rest funneling down to players in the form of higher salaries.

For nearly two decades, the NFL’s schedule had been as consistent as Tom Brady: All 32 teams played 16 regular season games, with 12 teams reaching a single-elimination postseason tournament. The league blossomed during that stretch, with revenues rocketing to about $16 billion in 2019 before taking a pandemic-induced dip down to about $12 billion in 2020, according to the Sports Business Journal.

The league’s owners, however, sensed an opportunity to further boost revenues headed into a renegotiation of their collective bargaining agreement with the players in 2019 and 2020. Owners pushed to add one or two more weeks to the regular season, resulting in an additional 16 or 32 games, and expand the playoffs from 12 to 14 teams.

Some players embraced the proposal, which would result in across-the-board pay increases and a tiny bump in the percentage of league revenue devoted to salaries. Other high-profile players, including Brady and defensive All-Pros J.J. Watt and Richard Sherman, worried that the longer season would result in more injuries.

“Players have been more aware of player safety and longevity and just life after football,” Sherman, then a top cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers and vice president of the NFL Players Association executive committee, said in January 2020. “The league kind of pretends that they’re interested in it, pretends that they care about it, makes all these rules and fines all these players [for dangerous hits], but then still proposes for players to play an extra game.”

Ultimately, members of the NFL Players Association narrowly approved a deal that allowed the owners to add an 17th regular season game for all squads and two playoff teams. In response to player safety concerns, the two sides also agreed to cut each team’s number of preseason games from four to three.

The precise financial implications of the expanded schedule aren’t known, though documents produced during the negotiations offer a window.

An internal NFL Players Association memo, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, suggested that players could receive nearly $500 million in 2020–21 if the league added two regular season games for all teams. 

Given that players earn nearly half of league revenue, that would mean about a billion dollars total for two extra weeks of games—or roughly $500 million total for one more week of regular season games, which the league settled on for the 2021-22 season. 

Officials for the NFL, a private entity that doesn’t release internal financial data, did not respond to a request for comment on the projected revenue bump from the extra week of matchups.

The financial impact of the two added playoff games, however, is much clearer. 

According to the 2020 collective bargaining agreement signed by the NFL and the Players Association, league officials made a “good faith estimate” that the expanded postseason would generate about $150 million in revenue that year. 

The playoffs games carry a premium price tag because they routinely rank among the most-watched television events annually. Per the Sports Business Journal, last year’s first-round matchups scored viewership totals ranging from 20.1 million people (an early-afternoon Saturday kickoff between the small-market Buffalo Bills and Indianapolis Colts) to 30.7 million people (a late-afternoon Sunday clash between the larger-market Chicago Bears and New Orleans Saints).

The added games will only become more lucrative in the years to come, particularly when the NFL’s new broadcast rights deal kicks in during the 2023–24 season. 

League officials inked deals with multiple broadcasters totaling $110 billion over 11 years, nearly double the value of rights agreements currently on the books, the New York Times reported. 

A fraction of the higher price tag stems from the additional regular season and playoff games. However, most of the increase is tied to rising demand among broadcasters for sports programming, one of the few remaining big-ticket, appointment-television products left on the market.

“If advertisers want to reach big audiences—even if those audiences are smaller than they have been in the past—sports, and more specifically the NFL, is increasingly the best place to do that,” the Washington Post’s Ben Strauss wrote in March 2021.

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