How to Solve the Thursday Night Football Issue
Recently, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell tweeted out an open letter to football fans that spoke to improving the game for all of the viewers of the sport, both in the stadium and at home. That is a great step forwards, but there still is plenty of room for improvement. I am writing this response as an Open Letter not just to Commissioner Goodell but to everyone involved in the NFL – players, coaches, owners and fans – with a different perspective in improving the game for everyone.
Many players have voiced concerns with Thursday Night Football. Fans watching these contests early in the week love another night of action, but the quality of the game is typically subpar. Television networks love additional games to broadcast, but without a high caliber product, interest starts to wane. The cat is already out of the bag now with at least one Thursday contest every week except the final week of the regular season, so what can be done to both improve the product and also increase the quality of the matchups? I think I have a viable solution.
First, let’s talk about the other area where the NFL is looking to expand – Europe. Most notably, London. The NFL has had a presence before in other countries across the ocean, with the biggest pet project being the World League of American Football. Later rebranded as “NFL Europe”, Germany, Spain, England and other parts of the globe all were part of this endeavor, but now the NFL has refocused towards playing NFL contests in other countries as a display of their product and a potential marketing tool for expansion. A few regular season games are now played in London each season, but as part of that scheduling all of the teams are offered for their bye week to be scheduled immediately after the trip across the pond. This gives the players time to rest up after the long travel plans back and forth to England.
My proposed solution for Thursday Night Football borrows from this scheduling portion for teams playing in London. Here is the only rule for scheduling needed to fix this:
Teams get the week off before their Thursday Night Football contest.
That’s it. Nothing beyond that simple rule. By adopting this one single condition, teams would have 10-11 days between games (assuming that they play Sunday contests before and after their Thursday matchup), which is ample time for healthy players to recover between games. The bye week becomes two “mini-breaks” between action, which helps to keep the momentum going for teams during the season.
Now, I understand that this does create a few scheduling issues throughout the entirety of the NFL season. I do have solutions for those as well, and it does not get too complicated – so I think it can all be accomplished and make everyone happy. First, television networks (and the team owners) do not want to lose revenue from Thursday games. Last season there were 18 games played on Thursdays, one in every week but the final week of the regular season plus two additional games for Thanksgiving. That would not fit well with the rule above for the first few weeks of the regular season and also December, as the NFL frowns upon giving teams a bye too early or late in the year. That is not an issue in Week 1 of course, but Weeks 2-4 would be of concern. Those weeks would be better served as weeks to not have Thursday games, but those three contests would have to move to the later parts of the season. December affords more windows for games to be played on Friday or Saturday, whichever makes more sense for the television networks for broadcasts. Players benefit here by having 24-48 extra hours to rest before the game, and the league gets their extra prime time contests towards the later part of the year with teams usually playing at a higher level than during the first month of the season. The reason that the NFL has not typically scheduled games on Friday or Saturday was one of respect for both high school and college contests, which are typically played on those two days. Once upon a time, players looked forward to Friday Night Lights in high school, then playing big games on Saturdays in college, and then dreaming of playing on Sunday in the pros. That is still usually the case, even with many games on different nights to increase exposure and ratings for the sport and networks.
What goes overlooked is that over 95% of football for high school and college is completed by the end of November. December is reserved for special contests of Bowl Games or playoffs, which means that the likelihood of schedule conflicts is much less for putting NFL games on a Saturday in December. The NFL already knows this and they often schedule games on Saturdays the final month of the calendar year, including one in Week 14 in 2016 and nearly the entire slate of games on Christmas Eve in Week 15.
So here is Part 2 of the proposal to improve the NFL schedule – play seven games on Saturdays in December after Thanksgiving. A typical pattern could be one game in Week 13, followed by two each in the following three weeks. Now the total of Thursday games stands at 11, with seven on Saturdays – matching the 18 that used to be exclusive to Thursdays. NFL players get their rest, networks, fans and advertisers get 18 one-off prime time / national broadcasts, and everyone walks away happy.
Last but not least, since I am already changing the schedule, let’s talk about the elephant in the playoff schedule room. I am looking at you, Pro Bowl. Why is it that no one cares about this game? Is it because of the quality of the game, or that no one wants to go? I want to assert that one reason that this game may lack interest is that it is played at the end of the year for the sport, while all of the other major leagues take a break in regular season action to celebrate their sports. Now, I am not about to propose making the game meaningful like what baseball does (that’s another issue entirely, and one that will become a huge deal once a player on a team looking to get to the World Series gets injured in this meaningless contest because he wants to win home field for his club in October. Really baseball, is that your answer? Really? REALLY?!? – but I digress). What I am proposing is to put the Pro Bowl in November, the week before Thanksgiving. Give everyone else off that week just prior to Turkey Day to either partake in the All-star festivities or to rest up for the big postseason push of the final 5-6 games of the year. Fans will still be there, and will come back to the Thanksgiving and December games with renewed vigor with players more rested and ready to compete. Even better, players will now not bow out as much for the exhibition contest, as they know it is just an exhibition. The NBA and NHL rarely have players decline an invitation to go to celebrate their sport, and fans tune in to both of those contests (and All-star weekend festivities), so it is worth a try.
There you have it. I fixed the Thursday Night Football problem and threw in an added bonus of improving the Pro Bowl situation (then again, most anything would improve the Pro Bowl). Use the bye weeks to the advantage for everyone, and let players rest up for the second half of a long regular season and playoffs. Everyone will benefit from it.
As always, questions, suggestions and comments are always welcome to firstname.lastname@example.org