An 18-Game Season Would Threaten the NFL’s Precious Scarcity

The country’s most popular sports league keeps pushing the envelope as it approaches a dangerous saturation point.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks through the crowd during the 2024 NFL draft.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell walks through the crowd during the 2024 NFL draft. / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I truly hope that the discussion about an 18-game NFL regular season was just something to fill the void between the NFL draft and the league’s next pseudo-tentpole event, the schedule release. And isn’t it strange that we feel a void at all? The draft just happened. The start of free agency was seven weeks ago. The Hall of Fame game is 13 weeks away. 

This speaks to the NFL’s grip strength on our calendars, though it may seem a little tighter for those of us who cover the league for a living and are making assumptions about how the lay fan operates (although the visual of nearly a million people milling about in Detroit just to hear a fifth-round tight end from Lehigh be called and boo that person for no apparent reason says otherwise). We feel a void because the league has, in the past, done a better job of injecting our brains with a dopamine-producing cocktail of violence and narrative and gambling than just about any other television product in existence. It’s that same sweet spot I felt personally back when I believed that World Wrestling Entertainment was real, and I was aghast at the idea that someone would throw another human being through a folding table (long before Bills fans started doing it with regularity). 

Still, I think the league is seriously misreading and misunderstanding our need for football. The need is a good thing. It’s a valuable tool. It heightens anticipation. Roger Goodell’s NFL is flirting with how close the NFL can possibly get to spamming us with the same regularity as a bespoke clothing company Instagram ad, and by adding games it would be coming one step closer to destroying the best thing about the NFL: it’s relatively short window of operating time that makes it feel like an extended holiday. 

Detroit fans pose with Roger Goodell at the 2024 NFL draft.
Detroit fans pose with Roger Goodell at the 2024 NFL draft. / Mandi Wright / USA TODAY NETWORK

We have gone from once a week, to twice a week, and now regularly three times a week and often four times a week for football. We have gone from Christmas being relatively sacrosanct to heavily programmed. We have gone from no interference with Friday night high school football, to circumventing that promise by shoving the Eagles down to Brazil for their season opener. There is now a Black Friday game and, God help us, we are not far away from celebrating all manner of fall holidays (World Vegetarian Day, Nevada Day and Guy Fawkes Night) with a commemorative football game. The league’s tentacles have stretched aggressively of late. I previously wrote that this is the kind of expansion undertaken by those who may already believe they have crossed the rubicon into some kind of eventual phasing out in popularity and that they must accumulate as much wealth as possible while the property is still valuable.  

There is no shortage of studies about the value of relative scarcity or rarity. The journalist Benjamin Wallace did a famous article and Ted talk related to the most expensive items in the world and noted of a wine tasting in which, over the course of three days, he was served 60 of the rarest vintages in the world, including the 1947 Cheval Blanc (which retails now for just over $25,000 per bottle): “Any one of the wines from that tasting, had it been served at a dinner party, would have been incredibly memorable. Drinking 60 great wines over the course of three days, they all just kind of blurred together. It became almost a grueling experience.” 

When a product is fully saturated, we lose the ability to value it for all its brilliance. Pick any example. I started drinking coffee two years ago, was gifted a Nespresso machine last spring and now go through some mornings where I slug down an artfully crafted cup of coffee like it’s the 99 cent gallon variety at my local Sunoco from the black pull tab. We now get the aroma of $900/per oz. black truffles in a lab crafted bottle that retails for $13 at Acme and soak every french fry we can get our hands on in the stuff. Needless to say, I don’t say “Ohh!” when anything on a menu is preceded by the word “truffle” anymore. 

We’ve gotten more comfortable, more automated, more well-fed, more catered to, and our biological, evolutionary reaction is to stop viewing those advancements as particularly special anymore. 

The NFL’s expansion would cause the same ripple effect. It would also push games up into Labor Day weekend and back toward President’s Day. I would argue personally that part of the reason Labor Day is so special is that it represents a closure of summer and that the inevitable sadness that comes with the ramping up of a new school year and kids being out of the house and life becoming a little less slow and leisurely, is that the NFL starts the following weekend and breaks up those complicated feelings with a distraction that tends to bring families and neighborhoods together via some combination of watch parties, tailgating, fantasy football drafting and so on. There is a rhythm here that works, in part because of the NFL’s (relative) restraint. 

An expansion would also increase roster sizes, fill the back end with players who aren’t NFL-ready and inevitably usher in some of the same load management practices for star players that have become a complicated and thorny issue in the NBA. The NBA had to usher in a rules system that makes certain the best players are available for prime-time games and in-season tournaments, which hampers a coach’s ability to maximize performance and the benefits of rest. 

We would have more Sundays that resemble Thursday Night Football games, which are already a painful slog toward the end of the season due to the simple fact that everyone is exhausted, hurt, psychologically and physiologically stressed to capacity, and uncatered to by schedule makers who are more interested in making each event into some kind of spectacle via narrative-based matchups that place little consideration on pitting teams with optimal rest together. 

Which brings us back to the point. A spectacle is defined, in part, by its rarity. If a solar eclipse happened daily, would my neighborhood stop at the park en masse and stare at the sky like a bunch of fearful Mesopotamians believing that the universe would swallow itself? Here in New Jersey, we got an extremely rare earthquake recently and Wednesday morning I slept through one of its aftershocks, already wholly assimilated like a Californian. 

The NFL needs to embrace its season. It needs to embrace once a week. It needs to embrace premium. A money grab in the interim will poison the product, it will dilute our senses and it will take away the advantage the league has over all other American sports. We miss it when it's gone. We’re sad when it’s over. That’s beautiful.


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Clare Brennan

CLARE BRENNAN

Clare Brennan is an associate editor for Sports Illustrated focused on women’s sports. Her work includes coverage of the WNBA and women’s soccer; and she previously wrote for Just Women’s Sports.