Playoff expansion: 10 big questions

Tony Romo

Change arrives for the NFL in predictable ways. Ideas percolate among the close advisers of commissioner Roger Goodell, a group made up of smart business executives whose guidance has built the league into a $10 billion industry. A framework is built, on-field personnel are consulted, details are discussed. Once a working plan is in place, Goodell begins floating the general idea publicly -- a sign to the initiated that its implementation is inevitable.

So it goes for the idea of playoff expansion, which Goodell first began discussing last fall and which could be approved as early as this week's spring meeting in Atlanta. Some logistical hurdles remain, including an adjustment of television contracts and collective bargaining with the NFL Players Association, but there is near-universal agreement that the league will expand its playoff field from 12 to 14 by no later than the 2015 season.

Goodell signaled that certainty during the NFL draft earlier this month, telling ESPN Radio that any remaining objections -- primarily, the feared dilution of the championship pool -- have been assuaged.

"The issue we've been trying to balance is obviously the competitive side," Goodell said. "I think we're convinced from a competitive standpoint we can do it the right way, create more excitement at the end of the season. And I don't think we'd support it if we didn't think the two teams that we're adding didn't have a chance to win the Super Bowl. And we do. But we want to talk to our partners, our broadcast partners, the players, to make sure we're considering everything."

As we await a verdict from this week's meeting, let's answer 10 questions about the benefits, costs and possible repercussions of this proposal.

1. How would it work?

Each conference would have seven playoff spots: four division champions and three wild-card teams. Several formats have been discussed, but the likeliest would give a first-round bye to the No. 1 seed and pit the remaining six teams against one another in a crowded wild-card weekend.

Structuring six playoff games in a short span has proved one of the most complicated facets of the reorganization. In January, Goodell said the league was considering several options.

The simplest is three games on Saturday and three on Sunday. Another suggestion has been one on Friday, two on Saturday and Sunday and the final one on Monday. A possible compromise: three on one of the weekend days, two on the other and one on Monday night. Presumably, the winner of Monday night's game would get a Sunday assignment for the divisional round to provide fair preparation time.

2. Why does the NFL want to do this?

The bottom line is, well, the bottom line. By definition, the league would increase its stadium receipts for the wild-card weekend by 33 percent. More significant from a financial perspective would be the broadcast deals that include more highly rated playoff games.

Meanwhile, a larger field would put more teams in legitimate playoff competition as the season climaxes. It would also decrease the impact of a poor start and late-season injuries that might slow a team's momentum. Both factors would, in theory, increase fan excitement and attention late in the season in the form of television ratings, attendance and other football-related purchases.

3. How much additional revenue will the NFL receive?

The league's largely private financial reports, combined with less-tangible ancillary value, make this estimation difficult.

Revenues from a home game vary per stadium, but the estimated range is between $5 million and $10 million per game. Assume the higher end for the postseason. So for two extra games a year, the NFL could generate up to $20 million in new revenue from stadium-related sales alone.

Most of that total would be absorbed and shared by the NFL, per league postseason policy. (The league pays home teams a stipend to cover operational costs that normally would be paid for from stadium revenue.)

The great unknown, at least outside the NFL's internal bubble, is how much the league could ultimately conjure from broadcasters for the right to air two more games from a historic ratings bonanza last season. According to the NFL, the four wild-card games from 2013 averaged a record 34.7 million viewers. Fox's game between the San Francisco 49ers and Green Bay Packers drew 47.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched telecast over an 11-month period. The wild-card round also produced the four most-watched shows on television that week.

How will that popularity be monetized? Let the bidding begin, and prepare for it to cost tens of millions of dollars.

4. How much extra money would players make?

Additional compensation would come in two forms. First, players on the two seventh seeds would, according to the collective bargaining agreement, earn $22,000 for participating in a 2014 wild-card game. That's a total of at least $2.332 million in new playoff bonuses. If byes for the No. 2 seeds are eliminated, as expected, players on those teams would earn $24,000 each during wild-card weekend for a total of at least $2.544 million more.

Second, proceeds from the media rights would be added to the revenue pool used to calculate the NFL salary cap. According to the CBA, 45 percent of revenues from NFL Ventures/Postseason are directed into cap. The higher the revenue total, the higher the salary cap goes.

5. Could playoff expansion bring any corresponding changes?

Last fall, ESPN's Chris Mortensen reported the possibility of a trade-off: an expanded playoffs in exchange for eliminating a week of the preseason. That option hasn't been a primary focus of conversation, but it could become a leverage chip in negotiations with the NFL Players Association. The only people who would protest a shorter preseason are coaches who want to see their backup players get game-speed experience.

At least one owner has publicly acknowledged the likelihood of an eventual exchange. In March, the Baltimore Ravens' Steve Bisciotti told theMMQB.com that playoff expansion could "prompt us to maybe look at reducing the preseason" and added that "I think we're trending in that vein."

There have been suggestions from some, including new NFL Players Association president Eric Winston, about using this opportunity to make broader changes to the playoff system. Seeding by record, rather than dividing between division champions and wild cards, is one of the most-repeated ideas. There is no indication, however, that the NFL intends to act on any of them during this round of alterations.

6. Would a 14-team field dilute the NFL playoffs?

By definition, the postseason would be less exclusive and have a higher risk of handing out undeserving berths. Would playoff games be of lesser quality? Not necessarily, given how close in talent the middle of the NFL really is. And "undeserving" can mean different things.

The final two entrants into a 14-team field last season would have been the Arizona Cardinals (10-6) and Pittsburgh Steelers (8-8). Few would deny the Cardinals had a playoff-caliber team. On the other hand, the fear of an 8-8 playoff team is acute among critics, but it's fair to point out the Steelers won six of their final eight games, including two against playoff teams in December.

Here is a bigger picture: In the past 11 years, none of the 22 presumptive No. 7 seeds would have had a losing record. Sixteen would have been 9-7 or better, and six would have been 8-8. (Remember, the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks made the playoffs in 2010 as NFC West division champions, not a wild card.)

With 43.8 percent of its teams in the playoffs, the NFL would have a more inclusive field than Major League Baseball (33.3 percent) but would still be more selective than the NBA and NHL (both at 53.3).

7. Wouldn't this increase the odds of an "accidental champion?"

The fear is legitimate, but data suggests it's already a real possibility in a 12-team single-elimination field.

Any comparison between the NFL postseason format and those from the NBA and NHL must include an important caveat: The latter two play seven-game series. Protected from a fluke elimination, the best team usually wins over the long haul. Speaking this winter at the annual MIT/Sloan Analytics Conference, New York Knicks president Phil Jackson said: "We really don't have accidental champions" in the NBA.

That's not the case in the NFL, where a bad day can end a Super Bowl dream or a hot team can defeat opponents who performed much better in the regular season. In a worst-case scenario, an ordinary regular-season team wins the Super Bowl. So would 14 teams fighting for the Super Bowl make it that much harder for a "favorite" -- i.e., the regular-season's best team -- to win it?

Preliminary analytic studies suggest it would not -- in part because the randomness of NFL champions is already pretty high. According to Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight, the "best" NFL team based on previous performance wins the Super Bowl less than half the time. A case in point: the 2010 Packers, who won Super Bowl XLV as the NFC's No. 6 seed. According to Paine's projections, a 14-team bracket would face similar -- but not increased -- chances for randomness.

Finally, there is no evidence that the NFL puts high value on the top regular-season teams winning the Super Bowl. Instead, it embraces the unpredictability of its playoff tournament.

8. If money trumps prestige, why 14? Why not 16?

Don't laugh. For all we know, a 14-team postseason is a trial run for something larger and more lucrative. But simple and advanced data tell us that the gap between 14 and 16 NFL playoff teams is the difference between a tweak and an overhaul.

In theory, a 16-team field could restore the second bye for each conference. But the best way to maximize revenues -- and that's why we're here, isn't it? -- would be to eliminate byes altogether and play eight games in the wild-card round. That would be a substantial aesthetic change, but it would also significantly increase the chances of our so-called "accidental champion" result.

Paine's model indicates the elimination of first-round byes would redistribute the odds that would otherwise go to the top teams. In other words, a 16-game field would give lower seeds a much better chance to win the Super Bowl than they already have.

The NFL might some day prefer that scenario, which would fall under its larger umbrella of parity and increasing embrace of unpredictability. But it would probably be too much too soon for a slow-moving institution.

9. What do players think of the proposal?

While it remains fiercely opposed to an 18-game regular season, the NFLPA appears more open to expanded playoffs. The change would still be a matter of collective bargaining, but Winston embraced it during a March interview with KILT-AM in Houston.

"For the record," Winston said, "I don't put that expanded playoff in the same category as 18-game [seasons]. We're talking about one extra game, possibly, for two teams or four teams total, if you would count both AFC [and] NFC."

As noted earlier, more players would get an opportunity for playoff bonuses, which are a fraction of their base salaries but still represent found money. The increased attention of postseason play could also figure into additional marketing opportunities.

9. What do fans think?

While viewed as inevitable by most, all anecdotal evidence and unscientific polls suggest fans don't like the idea of expanded playoffs (especially at this hopeful time of year, when fans think their team will be a No. 1 seed rather than fighting for No. 6). Two-thirds of nearly 190,000 respondents to a recent ESPN SportsNation poll opposed it.

The most common objection is that it would devalue the regular season, as articulated by Kyle Segall on Twitter: "Making it easier to get in cheapens it a bit, to me. Perfect as is." Tweeted Andrew Baker: "It's so perfect as it is right now... I hate that leagues are always trying to expand for $$ when systems are great."

The NFL, however, would take a longer-range view that recognizes fans have eventually grown accustomed to most changes over the decades, be it the move to a 16-game season, the advent of free agency and instant replay, franchise expansion or redrawing divisions.

10. Is this really inevitable?

Take it to Vegas. It will happen, probably for 2015 to allow for a more orderly set of final negotiations and planning. The mission of all big business is growth, and the NFL views playoff expansion as a growth opportunity with minimal big-picture downside.

What's the worst thing that can happen? You're wrong if you think it's a lower quality of play in the postseason. That doesn't matter unless television ratings fall in conjunction with it. Does anyone really think fewer fans will watch the playoffs because two more teams have been added? Moving on ...

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