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Perfect expanded-schedule compromise: 17 games

by | Senior Writer

Indianapolis president Bill Polian is right when he says an 18-game schedule is a virtual slam dunk, but that doesn't mean it's right for the NFL. Too many players tell us it's not. But the league is fixed on expanding the regular season at the expense of exhibition games, and so it will happen.

So let it. But here's a suggestion: Don't make it 18 games. Make it 17.

The NFL could use the odd 17th game to play in non-pro venues like Happy Valley. (Getty Images)  
The NFL could use the odd 17th game to play in non-pro venues like Happy Valley. (Getty Images)  
Yeah, I know it seems like an awkward solution because, after all, 16 and 18 can be divided by two -- making it easy to set home-and-away schedules -- and 17 cannot. But that's what makes the number attractive. Put the 17th game at a neutral site, and you satisfy fans, players, coaches, marketing departments, virtually everyone but owners who would sacrifice earnings from another home date.

Let me explain. With a 17th contest you can take a regular-season game ... or two ... or three ... and ship it to an international site, which the NFL has been doing the past three years. Only you wouldn't make it a competitive disadvantage.

As things stand now, it is. I mean, if I'm the San Francisco 49ers, I'm ticked because I just lost one of eight home games to London, and tell me where you think coach Mike Singletary would rather play -- Wembley Stadium or Candlestick Park?

I thought so.

So let him go to London, only make it a 17th game. Then, nobody suffers. It's a neutral site for two teams, and it's a competitive disadvantage for neither. But it's more than that. You mollify coaches and players, but you still take them to fans in Canada or Mexico or China or wherever the NFL wants to spread its corporate logo next.

Let's face it, the NFL sees the U.S. as a saturated market and wants to explore untapped areas to mine new audiences. That makes sense. Well, now you can do that without penalizing the football people who abhor the loss of home games.

Of course, there are only so many foreign markets, and there are 16 stadiums that need to be identified. No problem. I can think of plenty, and I'm sure the NFL can, too -- and I'm not talking about international venues. I'm talking about doing what Pete Rozelle did 50 years ago, and selling the game to people here at home. Demonstrate that you care about Joe Six Pack in Columbus, Ohio, and make the home to Ohio State University's football team the home to the NFL for one weekend.

But why stop there? The NFL has been working for years on returning football to Los Angeles, but nothing seems to work. Well, this would. Put a game in the Rose Bowl. Then put another in the L.A. Coliseum. And sell it as a weekend package, with one game on a Saturday and another on a Sunday. If you can have "Sunday Night Football in America," why can't you have "An Afternoon Weekend in Los Angeles?"

You can.

It's unimaginable that the NFL is not in the second-largest market in the country. So fix it for one weekend, return the league to the Southland, and maybe, just maybe, you develop a market that too long has gone neglected.

I don't know, maybe you could make it something along the lines of what the NHL does with its "Winter Classic" on New Year's Day. If the NHL can play hockey where it hasn't played hockey before, why can't the NFL play football where it doesn't play football now?

The NHL idea was brilliant, with fans who never thought of attending a pro hockey game suddenly interested in seeing one played at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field or Heinz Field. So create interest in areas where the NFL isn't played by taking it there for a weekend.

Then let the game sell itself.

And let it keep selling itself across the country. You have two pro football teams in Texas, right? Why not have one of them play a 17th game in San Antonio? I know a domed stadium there big enough to handle a Sunday NFL crowd. So put one there, and sell your product. Or take it to Texas A&M or the University of Texas. Each has a capacity in excess of 80,000.

In Pennsylvania, you could rent Penn State's 107,000-seat Beaver Stadium for a weekend. Or return pro football to Franklin Field, which holds about half that number. The University of Michigan has a stadium that seats more than 100,000. So does the University of Tennessee. Why not use them as neutral sites for one day? You pack the house, pull in millions of dollars and make peace with the NCAA by writing big checks to rent its stadiums.

But you do more than that. You keep the preseason at three games, which seems acceptable to most coaches and players, while satisfying supporters of an expanded regular-season schedule.

Look, there is no way the NFL isn't going to go to more regular-season games. Commissioner Roger Goodell is pushing it for 2012, and usually what Goodell wants he gets. But he won't get it without support of the players, and trading two preseason games for two games that count could --- or should -- cost a lot in return. So reduce the offer to one game, and you reduce the price.

The players would see it as a compromise and a solution they could work with. As it stands now, I haven't heard one player who likes the idea of punishing his body for two more regular-season games. Make it one, and maybe he'd listen.

But the NFL should, too. For one, it would be viewed as a compromise, always a good idea when labor talks are as prickly as the current collective-bargaining discussions. For another, it would sell the game to areas that only see it on TV. We're told that "if you build it they will come." Well, the stadiums are out there, waiting for pro football. So go to them.

You satisfy fans who want more football. You satisfy players who don't want to suffer through two more regular-season games. You satisfy coaches who don't want to lose home games to foreign markets. And you satisfy a league that wants to deliver more meaningful football to a country and a world that isn't familiar with it. In essence, you send a message that you care about the sport.

What's not to like?


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