Ten-Day Stretch of Games Around Christmas Will Test NFL’s Exhaustion Factor

We’ll find out whether the players have another marathon slog in them as the league begins to seriously contemplate an 18-game season.
Goodell is mulling a future with 18 regular-season games, a Presidents Day weekend Super Bowl and a significant increase in international games.
Goodell is mulling a future with 18 regular-season games, a Presidents Day weekend Super Bowl and a significant increase in international games. / Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL’s insistence on having non-Sunday Christmas games in 2024 means a particularly harrowing stretch for teams in December that will include a 10-day stint leading up to, and going through, one of the most widely celebrated holidays of the year in which there are only three days with a game not taking place.

I truly believe, and I’ve written before, that this will be the year that definitively tests the league’s potential exhaustion factor as it prepares to seriously discuss an 18-game season. We’ll be battered by the (delightful, mostly) onslaught of family gatherings, school events, pageants, dances, religious services, dinners and generalized pressure to make life magical for those whom we are responsible for, trying to follow dozens of matchups across a myriad of networks requiring enough streaming service passwords to qualify for a Department of Defense security clearance. And most of our season-long fantasy football schedules will be over, by the way.

Still, there’s a good chance it’ll work, even if I personally hate the idea of non-Sunday Christmas games. Football is ideal background noise and advertisers don’t seem to know or care whether you’re glued to the screen or you have it on as a buffer between yourself and a group of parenting influencer friends who want to ask you about the PFA content in your nonstick cookware for a video they’re filming. Football is fun to gamble on when you are bored and in need of a dopamine jolt. Football is socially relevant programming, and if you’re still worried about speaking to people in real life, knowing something about the tenor of a game or a season is valuable currency. There is a reason that the NFL had 92 of the 100 most watched television broadcasts of 2023.

Although, what is truly phenomenal about this gamble is the NFL’s belief that the product will maintain its quality enough to justify steady viewership as it pushes toward a complete and total takeover, especially during this torrid 10-day stretch. We have all these TV channels and now streaming services picking at the best games like the one diamond bracelet in the claw machine, and we often forget about what’s left—bad games between two quarterback-less teams ravaged by injury or front office ineptitude or coaching inflexibility (mostly stemming from poor ownership). The league wants more games to occupy more tentpole days on the American sports calendar without providing adequate rest, with about half the league providing playing surfaces desired by a vast majority of players, and about a third of the league providing inadequate recovery care.

This past year, the NFLPA report card showed us:

  • That some teams forced 300-plus-pound players to stuff themselves into coach on flights while the staff sat in first class;
  • That some facilities lacked hot water or adequate water pressure in the showers;
  • That some teams required that players have hotel roommates, cutting down on their sleep time and prohibiting them from properly recovering or preparing for a game;
  • That some teams refused to pay for a luggage-forwarding service, which meant players sandwiched into tiny airplane seats for an hour on the tarmac for no reason, detracting from their healing time.

Without fairly aggressive changes, it’s hard to imagine players responding to the subtle demand that these games not only take place, but that they entertain us.

Not only is the NFL robbing from Sunday to legitimize Thursday and bolster Monday and fortify Sunday night and make Black Friday interesting and keep our attention through Thanksgiving, but they are now altering the schedule. Over Christmas, in particular, that 10-day stretch will feature teams on a Saturday-to-Wednesday swing at the end of a brutal and rigorous season already modified by a schedule that better fits network interests than it fosters a more legitimate attempt at a healthy season.

To be clear, I don’t blame the NFL because it’s difficult societally to blame anyone for grabbing the money. At some point in our lives, we have all compromised values for the sake of our personal happiness and the security of future generations. We are in a window of time that uniquely rewards live, programmable content that does not require the use of unionized creatives. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is also getting higher ratings. So is New Year’s Rockin’ Eve. ABC simulcast Monday Night Football a year ago. Nickelodeon first got a playoff game, then eventually the Super Bowl. All of the people making decisions for the league will be long gone by the time the NFL goes by the way of Major League Baseball, so they are capitalizing the moment.

My concern is the lack of an inherent braking system to prevent the NFL from flying too close to the sun. Sure, last year’s banner year (and another overall ratings climb just south of its all-time high) coincided with a semi-desolate quarterback landscape that by the end of the year was sans Justin Herbert, Anthony Richardson, Deshaun Watson, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Burrow, Kirk Cousins and Daniel Jones. But there were other ancillary story lines such as the Taylor Swift–Travis Kelce romance, the Chiefs’ Super Bowl repeat and the rise of the highly entertaining Detroit Lions. In addition, it felt like the simmering officiating crisis only drew in more curious and conspiratorial minds. I don’t know whether the NFL has another Swift miracle in its back pocket.

I also don’t know if these players have another marathon slog in them. But we’ll most certainly find out during a time when most of us will be off work readying for the holidays and finding ourselves able to more closely examine what the NFL has become, and where it’s trying to go.


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Conor Orr

CONOR ORR

Conor Orr is a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, where he covers the NFL and co-hosts the MMQB Podcast. Conor has been covering the NFL for more than a decade and is a member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA). He has been honored in The Best American Sports Writing, and previously worked for The Newark Star-Ledger and NFL Media. He’s an avid runner and youth sports coach who lives in New Jersey with his wife, two children and a loving terrier named Ernie.