Proposed playoff expansion could be tipping point in NFL's greed

·5 min read

It was nearly six years ago when Mark Cuban, billionaire owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, decided to weigh in on the NFL’s decision to cash another television check by playing a game each Thursday night.

“I think the NFL is 10 years away from an implosion,” Cuban said back in 2014. “I’m just telling you: Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they’re getting slaughtered. Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered.

“When you take it too far, people turn the other way. I’m just telling you, when you’ve got a good thing and you get greedy, it always, always, always, always turns on you. That’s rule No. 1 of business.”

Six years in and the NFL remains the most popular sports or entertainment property in America. It looks like a well-fed pig. “Thursday Night Football” has been panned for its lack of quality and for its lack of concern for the safety of the players … but fans still watch. As gambling becomes legal in more states, it stands to reason that will not just increase, but improve.

It’s actually the NBA that is dealing with sagging ratings.

That said, Cuban certainly knows business, there are four more years for his prediction to come true and the NFL is still out here acting, as Cuban put it, “hoggy.”

The latest is a pending collective-bargaining agreement that, per ESPN, will add a 17th game to the regular season and expand the playoffs from six teams per conference to seven.

Start with the 17th game. One more week. One more chance for injuries. Also one more week of action. It eliminates the even split of home and away games, which could be an advantage every other year. It might open the door for more international contests that count as neutral sites. We’ll see.

As for the playoffs, instead of the current format of four divisional winners and two at-large teams getting in (with the top two teams earning byes), each conference will have three wild-card teams and only the top seed will sit out the first weekend. It could go into effect for the 2020 season.

The reason, of course, is money. One more week of regular-season programming and two additional wild-card round games to sell.

Is this serving America’s seemingly insatiable appetite for the NFL? Or is this the path to an inevitable slaughter?

It isn’t easy to say. The pros are fairly simple — more money for the NFL and its players, more football for the fans.

How do you complain about two additional playoff games? If it applied this year, the Kansas City Chiefs (AFC) and Green Bay Packers (NFC) would have played on wild-card weekend rather than not playing on wild-card weekend.

Moreover, the race for the No. 1 seed will take on even more importance — not only does that team have home-field advantage until the Super Bowl, it is now the only team that needs just three victories (rather than four) to win the championship. That’s huge.

The NFL's proposed playoff expansion would mean an extra wild-card team and only one bye for each conference. (Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
The NFL's proposed playoff expansion would mean an extra wild-card team and only one bye for each conference. (Photo by Rich Graessle/PPI/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

That said, this wasn’t broken, was it? The playoffs have featured 12 teams since 1990 and the current system has been in place since the 2002 expansion from 30 to 32 teams created four divisions per conference. The regular season has, for the most part, maintained its value.

About the only complaints have centered on when wild-card teams with better records have been forced to play at division winners with worse records.

There will be an impact on the regular season. The NFL probably likes that a third wild-card spot means more teams will remain in playoff contention deeper into the season.

However, how good are these teams? In 2019, the two extra wild-card teams would have been the Los Angeles Rams and the Pittsburgh Steelers.

In the AFC, every team with a winning record already got into the 2019 playoffs. The 8-8 Steelers were left out, but they lost their final three regular-season games. Is it a good thing when a team can back, back, back its way into the postseason?

In the NFC, the 9-7 Rams were left out but they lost two of their final three, as well.

In an era of fractured television ratings for just about everything other than live sports, it stands to reason that the most reliable audience-driver would look to max out on its advantage. The NFL is one resilient product.

That’s why it’s likely to weather whatever watering down comes with expansion. It’s quite possible this will become the new normal and no one will recall the old way of doing things. They’ll just enjoy getting to see a couple more playoff games.

Cuban is right that greed can do a business in. If in four (or so) years he winds up proven clairvoyant, then this regular-season extension and this playoff expansion might be the final meal that turned a pig into a hog.

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