The N.F.L. formally agreed to add a 17th regular season game on Tuesday, the first expansion of the league’s schedule since 1978.
To make room for the extra game, the league’s owners removed one preseason game, leaving three for each team. The upcoming regular season will begin on Thursday, Sept. 9 and end one week later than usual, on Sunday, Jan. 9, 2022. Super Bowl LVI, which will be played in Inglewood, Calif., will also move back one week, to Sunday, Feb. 13, 2022.
Teams will continue to have only one bye week during the season.
Team owners approved the expansion at an annual meeting held virtually, but the new calendar structure had been all but guaranteed to move forward after the league announced on March 18 that it had reached a series of long-term distribution deals with CBS, Fox and other media companies. The current collective bargaining agreement, reached in March 2020, gave team owners the option to add an extra regular season game if the league signed at least one new media deal.
With the addition of a 17th regular season game on top of the two extra playoff games the league added last season, the N.F.L. negotiated substantially higher rates for its media rights. The new deals, which total more than $100 billion, nearly double the amount of the expiring contracts.
“One of the benefits of each team playing 17 regular-season games is the ability for us to continue to grow our game around the world,” N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement.
During negotiations on the labor contract last year, many prominent players, including Richard Sherman and Aaron Rodgers, opposed adding a 17th regular season game. The owners ultimately won over reluctant union members, who approved the agreement by just 60 votes, with players getting a bump in their share of the N.F.L.’s revenue, up to 48.5 percent from 47 under the old deal.
Some players remain opposed to a longer season. Denver Broncos safety Kareem Jackson called the additional game “complete BS” in a post on Twitter. New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara used spicier language to convey his displeasure, before tempering his reaction by writing, “17 games still dumb,” on the app.
Goodell said in a conference call with reporters that players would still play a total of 20 preseason and regular season games. Injury rates, he said, are higher during preseason games, so eliminating one could lead to fewer injuries. Most established players, though, play only sparingly during the preseason, when coaches prefer to evaluate free agents and rookies as they vie for roster spots.
On Tuesday, the owners also approved a rule that would require all 32 teams to play an overseas game at least once every eight years. This will allow the league to schedule up to four neutral-site games each year outside the United States starting in 2022. Teams like the Green Bay Packers have been reluctant to play internationally because they did not want to give up the revenue from a home game and because of the stress of additional travel. In recent years, some franchises have been willing to play games in London and in Mexico City in exchange for the right to host a Super Bowl. The new rule would end that trade-off.
As the league looks to grow the game’s international footprint, N.F.L. executives said it may also return to playing games in Canada, as well as in South America and elsewhere in Europe, including Germany. Chris Halpin, the N.F.L.’s chief strategy and growth officer, said finding a Canadian stadium that meets the league’s specifications for hosting a game remains an issue.
The 17-game regular season will give half of the N.F.L.’s teams an extra home game each season. For simplicity’s sake, the 17th game will be hosted by all teams from one conference on a rotating basis. In 2021, every A.F.C. team will host nine regular season games, while N.F.C. teams will host eight. In 2022, N.F.C. teams will get the ninth home game.
As usual, teams will play home and away against their three divisional rivals for a total of six games. Interdivisional games within the same conference will continue on a rotating, three-year cycle, interconference games, on a four-year cycle. Remaining games will be determined based on the prior year’s standings.
The newly added 17th game will be between interconference teams based on the prior year’s standings. A first-place team from one division will face a first-place team from a division in the opposing conference that it had not been scheduled to play based on the usual scheduling rotations.
That will lead to some intriguing interconference games in 2021. The Green Bay Packers, for instance, winners of the NF.C. North last season, will travel to Kansas City to play the Chiefs, who won the A.F.C. West. The Seattle Seahawks, winners of the N.F.C. West, will play the Steelers in Pittsburgh, while the Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play the Colts in Indianapolis.
The N.F.L. will announce the dates and times of all these games in the coming weeks.