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DENVER — With myriad aspects of life unsettled because of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on society, the NFL and the Broncos have some degree of certainty with the NFL Players’ Association’s ratification of a collective bargaining agreement.
The NFL has labor peace through the 2030 season. Now it can turn its attention to the broadcast and streaming rights to games, knowing it can do so with firm inventory for the next 11 seasons.
This will extend the longest active streak of play without games lost to labor-related work stoppages in the “big four” professional sports to at least 43 full seasons; the NFL hasn’t lost a regular-season game since Week 3 of the 1987 season.
This is exactly what Broncos president/CEO Joe Ellis expected.
“I’m optimistic that smarter heads will prevail and that a deal will get done,” he said on Dec. 30, one day after the regular season ended.
WHAT HELPS THE BRONCOS MOST?
On the field, there is no doubt that it is the expanded postseason.
When staring down the barrel of Patrick Mahomes as the Chiefs’ quarterback for the foreseeable future, the addition of a third wild-card spot in each conference opens the window a bit more.
If Mahomes continues on his current trajectory — beginning with the most accomplished first two starting seasons of any quarterback relative to his era since at least Johnny Unitas in the 1950s — it is fair to expect the Chiefs to win the AFC West in approximately half of the years he starts, unless one of the other clubs in the division can find a quarterback of similar stature and performance. Obviously, the Broncos hope Drew Lock can approach that level, but Mahomes has provided a historically high bar to meet.
Had the NFL used a 14-team postseason since 2002 — when the league expanded to 32 teams — the Broncos would have had two more postseason appearances, in 2002 and 2006. That would have meant that the Broncos would have qualified for five consecutive postseasons under then-coach Mike Shanahan, since they were a part of the playoffs from 2003-05 with Jake Plummer at quarterback.
In the short term, the ratification allows the post-June 1 designation regarding player cuts to return, meaning that a team can spread the salary-cap hit of releasing a player over two seasons, rather than just one. This gives the option of the Broncos cutting quarterback Joe Flacco and spreading the $13.6 million of dead money over the 2020 and 2021 salary caps.
Effectively, the money taken off the books for Flacco could be used for much of the 2020 draft class, so hanging onto him through June 1 would have negligible impact on their cap situation. This is also contingent on Flacco being cleared medically.
The Broncos now also have more clarity in terms of budgeting. The salary cap for 2020 will be $198.2 million. The exact numbers beyond this season are to be determined based upon the broadcast and streaming contracts that expire in the next two years.
This also provides stability for a potential transition to Brittany Bowlen becoming a managing partner of the team — if the Bowlen family can unite behind her, as Ellis noted Dec. 30.
Should that not happen, the new CBA makes the Broncos a more valuable asset on the open market if the club is put up for sale. This is because overall costs can be forecast because of their connection to revenue for the next 11 seasons.
If the club is placed on the market, the Broncos’ sale price should exceed $3 billion in the wake of the CBA’s ratification.
WHAT STILL REMAINS TO BE RESOLVED?
The players’ share of league revenue will increase to 48.5 percent once the NFL adds a 17th game to the regular-season schedule for the 2021 campaign.
But with the bulk of the revenue coming from television and streaming contracts, the degree to which the players can maximize the increase in revenue is dictated by how much the NFL can extract from the deals.
This is part of why there was some urgency in some corners of both the owners and the players’ association to ratify the new CBA.
With economic uncertainty looming and the potential for TV ratings to decline this fall as they did in the last U.S. Presidential election year of 2016, the motivation to extend or approve new broadcast and streaming deals in the next several months was high.
AND WHAT OF THE 17TH GAME?
Over the next two seasons, the NFL will phase in the expansion of primary rosters (from 53 to 55 players), practice squads (from 10 to 14 players) and game-day active rosters (from 46 to 48 players). Teams will can now have eight offensive linemen active on game days as a result of the roster expansion.
What is still to be determined is how the 17th game is scheduled and whether the league institutes unbalanced home-away schedules or institutes a slate that guarantees a neutral-site game for every team, every year.
There is a league-wide cap of 10 international games league-wide per year, so it is not as simple as sending every team outside of the United States for one game per year.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will also want to keep moving at least one home game to London, given the revenue boost they get from each game there compared with their regular home of TIAA Bank Field.
- Giving half of the teams nine home games and the other half eight. The ideal scenario in this would be to give all NFC teams the extra home game in one season and all AFC teams a ninth home game the next season. International games could continue to be drawn from teams’ pool of home games.
- Sixteen neutral-site games, with six played within United States borders. Possible venues could include Orlando (the current home of the Pro Bowl), Honolulu (if a new stadium is constructed), San Antonio or myriad prominent college venues. The NFL could even consider making the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game into a regular-season contest. After the Chargers played three seasons worth of home games in a venue that had a capacity of 27,000, the notion of playing an annual game in a smaller stadium like 23,000-seat Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio is not as far-fetched as it once was.
And who would each team face in that 17th game?
- A set “rival” from the opposite conference each season. The most likely candidates for the Broncos would be the Seattle Seahawks, a member of the AFC West from 1977 through 2001, and the Arizona Cardinals, the only other team in the Mountain time zone. Every four years, they would play their “rival” twice, since the current schedule rotation to play each division in the opposite conference once every four years would continue.
- A team from the other conference determined by standings. The NFL could opt to have the top team from the AFC from the previous season meet the best team in the NFC, and continuing down the list to have the worst teams in each conference from the previous season play each other.
- The NFL could also establish a rotation similar to that for interconference play, in which divisions are paired, with the games based off the previous year’s standings, e.g. the first-place team from the AFC West faces the top team from the NFC West one year, then the corresponding team from the NFC South the next year, and so on. Either one of these possibilities means that three games on the schedule are determined by the previous year’s standings, up from the current two.