NFL Sidelines Talk of Expanded Playoff Roster

Commissioner: extra wild card games aren’t in the cards next season

National Football League commissioner Roger Goodell this week acknowledged that the NFL would not implement an expanded playoff scheme in time for the 2013-14 campaign.

Speaking at the annual NFL owners meeting in Phoenix, Goodell said that a proposition to add either two or four teams to the current 12-franchise playoff system would be tabled for the time being.

“We have a bit of work to do before we advance it,” Goodell said. “It clearly won’t be happening for this year, if there was any doubt about that.”

Thus far, the NFL competition committee has examined some of the issues that would arise with a bulked-up playoff schedule. For one thing, should the league decide to add two teams from each conference, it would almost certainly have to eliminate any first-round byes.

“There are things that we will now take and put into our own consideration and probably have some discussions with the [NFL Players Association] at some point in time to get their views,” Goodell said. “I think the information … was helpful for us in our consideration.”

Despite the obvious added revenue that would be realized by a super-sized playoff field, the matter has never been taken to the NFL owners for an official vote.

The NFL in 1990 added a wild card game in each conference, thereby expanding the postseason field from 10 teams to a dozen. That same year the league altered the regular-season schedule so that each team would play its 16 games over the course of 17 weeks.

The last time the NFL tinkered with its postseason slate coincided with the signing of new TV rights deals with partners ABC, CBS, NBC and ESPN. Together, the four networks paid $789.3 million for the rights to carry NFL games. Flash forward 24 years—the new rights packages extend from 2014-22, although ESPN’s deal will expire a year before its broadcast rivals—and the league is now taking in $5.18 billion per year in media dollars alone.

ESPN would likely benefit the most from an expanded playoff scenario. Although the terms of the rights package it signed in 2011 do not explicitly include the rights to carry postseason action, a flexible clause in the contract could allow ESPN to telecast up to two newly introduced wild card matchups.

The network that lands the bonus games can count on a nice lift in its annual ad sales haul. Such is the popularity of the NFL that even the first round of playoff games out-rates every other non-NFL broadcast—with the exception of the Academy Awards. In January, the four wild card games delivered an average audience of 30.4 million viewers, with Fox’s coverage of the Seahawks-Redskins melee beating all comers with 38.1 million viewers.

Per Kantar Media, last year’s postseason action, from the wild card games to the Super Bowl, generated $976.3 million in total ad sales revenue. Add two early games to the mix and that number almost certainly soars past the $1 billion mark.

Along with the playoff talk, the owners are expected to weigh in on the future of the Pro Bowl. Goodell has said that the level of play in the annual exhibition improved this year, although it remains uncertain if the NFL will keep the often farcical scrimmage on its calendar beyond 2014.

The commissioner later this week is expected to unveil some fundamental changes in the Pro Bowl’s format. According to NFL Network correspondent Ian Rapoport, the league is considering a rule change that would allow the AFC and NFC team captains to draft their own rosters rather than submit to automatic alignment by conference. 

NBC’s coverage of the 2013 Pro Bowl drew 12.2 million viewers and a 4.0 in the dollar demo, out-delivering every other non-NFL broadcast on the network since the season began but for the Sept. 17 series premiere of Revolution (4.1).