The National Football League is a sports and entertainment juggernaut, but it’s far from perfect. Here are three things it could do to improve the product.
1, Let quarterbacks deflate the ball.
Let me be clear here: if Tom Brady and the Patriots knowingly broke the rules, they should be punished. But no one has explained to my satisfaction the purpose of the rule. What harm is there in letting a quarterback adjust the ball so it’s easier to throw? Why not let teams inflate it to their preferred level? If both teams can do it, is any team gaining an advantage? While basketball and soccer teams share possession of the ball and might differ on what the proper pressure should be, a football is overwhelmingly possessed by one team (and a deflated football is probably easier to catch, and therefore intercept, anyway). And unlike other forms of tinkering with sports equipment, like corking bats and using stickum, deflating balls is self regulating: if you lower the pressure by too much, it’s harder to throw. So the amount of variance between balls will always be modest. In sports, the fewer rules, the better, and this one’s unnecessary. Here’s my proposal: let teams try it next preseason. I bet no one would notice a difference.
2, Expand the season to 18 games.
Here’s the catch: Make the season 18 games, but mandate that no player can play more than 16 games a season. To make this work, I’d eliminate the bye week, and expand the roster from 53 to 60. An 18-game season has all sorts of benefits. The NFL gets the two extra games it wants, giving it more product to sell to networks, and each team gets one more home game (which will pay for the additional players). Fans get more games, and they get a new wrinkle in strategy, as coaches must weigh which teams to sit their best players against. Coaches get to see backups play in meaningful situations. Players get more rest (and forced rest, so there can be no accusations of being soft for sitting out a game) and with expanded rosters, there are more jobs. The integrity of the 16-game season is preserved, so individual records are still meaningful. It’s a win-win-win-win. The only hitch: I can’t see teams carrying two kickers and punters, so I might waive the 16-game rule for those positions.
3, Move the Jaguars to London.
This is more of a prediction than recommendation, as it looks like it may happen, but it makes sense and the league should do it. (Disclosure: I live in London). The Jaguars have signed up to play one game in London every year from 2013 through 2017, and while the games are purportedly to build an international fan base (and somehow entice Londoners to games in northeast Florida) it’s clear that the league is laying the groundwork for moving the franchise. Jacksonville’s owner, Shad Khan, already has a foothold in the U.K., owning the Fulham soccer team. The NFL has eyed Europe hungrily for decades, even sponsoring the ill-fated World League of American Football (Amsterdam Admirals, anyone?). They want this to happen. Jacksonville isn’t the smallest NFL market (that would be Green Bay), nor are they worst at drawing fans. But the team is the third NFL franchise in its state, and arguably the sixth most popular football team (trailing the Dolphins, Bucs and three college programs). Weighed against being the sole team in a city of 8.6 million (10 times Jacksonville’s population) and on a continent of 400 million, it seems a no brainer.
There are obstacles. One is the Jaguars stadium lease with the city Jacksonville, which locks them in until 2027 (this article has the details). But if the team and the NFL wanted them to move, I suspect it would happen. Then there’s scheduling. While the flights from the East Coast of the U.S. to London are long (six to eight hours, depending on the direction), it’s similar to a flight Miami to Seattle. The bigger problem is the time zone difference, which is five hours between the East Coast of the U.S. and London, and eight from the West Coast. Making that adjustment eight times a season (or nine, if you adopt my first suggestion) would be brutal for the Jaguars and competitive disadvantage. But here’s how to make it palatable: schedule two road trips of four and five games long. The team would spend the duration in the US, then come back for a four or five game home stand, minimizing the number of transatlantic flights. Visiting teams would only have to make the trip once a year, and it could be done to so it’s the week after a bye or before a Monday game.
Would fans in London turn out? I think so. The NFL is now selling out 90,000 seat Wembley three games a year. They would need to fill it five (or six) more times, which wouldn’t be hard once fans had a home town to support (and the team could eventually move into a smaller stadium of their own). A winning product would help, but the initial novelty would sustain it for a few years. Look at the support for NYC FC, a fledgling soccer team, in New York. It had a fan club before it played a game. I suspect the reaction would be similar for an American sports product going th other way.
But they may not need to sell out to be a success for the league. The NFL last year experimented with a 2:30 p.m. London kickoff, meaning fans on the East Coast could watch the games at 9:30. a.m. Ratings were good, and this year all three games will have the early kick off. Having a full slate of morning games would give the NFL more inventory, which could be sold as a separate TV package (as suggested by ProFootballTalk here).
Ultimately, I think this will happen, even if the Jaguars have to wait until 2027, and a London franchise may be the first of four teams in Europe, enough to create another division and ease some of the travel burden. And the Super Bowl winners can finally claim to be world champions.