It’s the beginning of the week following the exciting NFC and AFC Championship games, and football fans across the country couldn’t be more excited about Super Bowl XLVIII featuring the Seattle Seahawks and the Denver Broncos. There is just one problem: the Super Bowl will be played on February 2—two weeks removed from the last played professional football games. And while fans across the country can complain all they want about having to wait a couple of weeks to satisfy their proverbial NFL cravings, Roger Goodell and company might literally be Scrooge McDucking during the bye week. I know I would be.
The NFL is set to make over $9 billion in 2013-2014 season, and Commissioner Goodell openly projects annual revenue upwards of $27 billion by 2027—assuming concussions haven’t killed the league by then. CBS, NBC, and FOX are paying the NFL at least $1 billion per year to broadcast games thru 2022; ESPN is currently paying around $15.5 billion over eight years for the rights to Monday Night Football; and FOX itself is getting payed around $4 million per 30 seconds of Super Bowl advertising time in 2014. To loosely quote from Rihanna’s “Pour it Up,” all I see is signs, all I see is dollar signs, and oh, Roger Goodell has money on his mind.
Needless to say, the NFL has little incentive to change from a financial perspective. So, if I were to ask Roger Goodell to eliminate the bye week between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl, what would his reaction be like? I am going to guess something along the lines of this:
And why wouldn’t Roger Goodell laugh at me? The NFL has managed to craft an incoherent yes almost unanimously accepted narrative that the bye week before the Super Bowl gives players the rest they need to protect their health during the league’s most important game. But the bye week is not about protecting players. If that were the case, the NFL would eliminate Thursday night games between teams that played a full, violent professional football game just three days earlier. In turn, if Roger Goodell really had player safety in mind, he would either eliminate or drastically shorten the preseason; require all players to wear Wes Welker’s new concussion safety helmet; and institute significant increases in fines and suspensions to deter illegal hits.
Nor is the bye week prior to the Super Bowl about maximizing coaching preparation. There is no rational reason that professional coaches need more than the standard amount of time to prepare for a football game. The Super Bowl, despite its admittedly inflated importance, is just another football game—there are no new rules and conditions involved.
At the end of the day, the bye week prior to the Super Bowl is simply a means of maximizing media profits. To be sure, ESPN, NBC, CBS, and FOX have every reason to want to turn the Super Bowl into a two-week, 24-hour news cycle narrative. If I were paying over $1 billion per year for the rights to a product, with apologies to the animal welfare community, I would milk that metaphorical cow until it were dry, and then I would at least research and mull utilizing rBST supplementation to generate even more unnatural amounts of milk. While it absolutely makes sense for television executives to covet the Super Bowl bye week—and to presumably incorporate such a scheduling requirement into their respective television contracts—I question whether it is in the best interests of Roger Goodell, the National Football League, and the ambiguous and highly subjective “integrity of the game.”
The NFL bye week first came to fruition in the 1960s, when the NFL had an odd number of teams. Once the NFL obtained an even number of teams, however, the bye week became antiquated and was removed from scheduling…until the 1990s—which also just happened to coincide with a new era of sports monetization. It doesn’t take a genius to question whether the reinstitution of the regular season bye week in the ’90s had more to do with extending the regular season an extra week to maximize revenues than it did ensuring player health and safety.
I champion player health and safety. Ideally, I would prefer an NFL with fewer games, safer rules, and smaller players. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with every team receiving one regular season bye week [I would prefer at least two]; however, I strongly oppose any and all attempts at justifying a Super Bowl bye week using a half-hearted player health and safety justification. The logic of Super Bowl scheduling should actually be quite simple: if the Super Bowl is intended to be an accurate reflection of the best NFL team during the season, then the Super Bowl itself should be played under the same conditions as virtually every other professional football game.
But playing the Super Bowl coming out of a bye week is not the same as virtually every other game played throughout the season. During the NFL regular season, each team plays 16 games over a 17 week time period. As a result, only one out of 16 games over the entire NFL season is played after a bye week. Team preparation is inherently different when given two weeks to prepare for a game versus just one week. And 94% of the times during the regular season, NFL teams only receive that one week of preparation. So why would the NFL determine its overall champion utilizing two weeks of preparation time—something that takes place only 6% of the time during the regular season?
Is the status quo Super Bowl really determining the best NFL team, or just the best remaining NFL team when given two full weeks to prepare? Perhaps I am just inflating the relevance of the Super Bowl bye week. Or maybe playing the Super Bowl under conditions that normally occur only 6% of the time is as silly as it sounds. Regardless, the fact that I am able to coherently make such an argument in the first place speaks to the necessity of the NFL taking a long, hard look at the logic of the Super Bowl bye week.