The NFL aspires to become a year-round player in the attention economy of professional sports. After years of being stuffed in their lockers by the NBA between May and July, the jerks at the NFL’s league office figured the best way to get fans talking about their product during the offseason was their upcoming roster for 2022 to announce seeping out details of selected matchups as if each were a diamond being smuggled out of a coal mine.
Unfortunately, for a league looking to milk their schedule release for cheap ratings, they’re doing it all wrong. The entire 18-week list will be released tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET. However, they are selling short. Announcing the prime-time schedule in May is too conservative an approach.
The mantra for the NFL’s schedule should be “anytime, anywhere” or “stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” The schedule release was to be a weekly primetime special every Tuesday night between September and early January, where each team learns who their opponent will be for the next week. That’s 18 weeks of surprise and intrigue instead of a grueling Thursday night special four months before the season even begins.
ESPN’s College Football Playoff Rankings Show is already doing something similar. During the final six weeks of the regular season, ESPN drops the College Football Playoff Committee’s updated rankings of the top six teams in the country. However, in typical NFL fashion, they can up the drama to 15. Find a studio in New York City or any NFL city nationwide, get a raucous fan or studio audience, and hire Rich Eisen or Nate Burleson to host the weekly NFL Schedule Show.
The pop-up schedule would not only surprise fans, but the 32 franchises as well. Upending the natural order of the sporting schedule may anger fans at first, but change is always uncomfortable. For decades, the NFL Draft was held over two days until it was moved to primetime in 2010, forcing the league to schedule a third day for rounds four through seven on Saturday afternoons. The NFL also operates its playoffs with more week-to-week spontaneity than any other professional sport due to its one-and-done nature. Extending this planning method to the regular season is the inevitable end point.
The pop-up planning model would transform how teams and coaches prepare, but modern technological advances have simplified this process. NFL coaches spend prodigious amounts of time away from loved ones during the season so they can dissect the same opponent’s game tape for the 15th time. Any reason for them to take a 48-hour break from breaking the bond and reconnecting with their long-lost families earlier in the week might offset complaints about the weekly prep.
Where’s the fun in staring at a static schedule for eight months? Imagine the chatter that will ensue in Week 16 as the 8-7 Cowboys fight for their lives in the playoffs and discover the Los Angeles Rams are their Sunday Night Football opponent. The existing model is played out. Of course something needs to be done when Bill Belichick eventually hires a hacker to access the server that stores the New England Patriots’ 18-game schedule, but they can cross that bridge when they get there. Having teams spend Tuesday nights, Wednesdays and Thursdays doing it is the most obnoxious, yet most engrossing way the league works. Since when has the NFL even bothered to make it easier for their employees? That’s good for the bottom line. In 2021, they added an extra week of football to an already brutal 16-game schedule. Giving both teams a few days to prepare for potential opponents is more than enough time.
Turning the release of the NFL schedule into a weekly mystery will make it harder for fans to book travel for away games, but it will create a purer home field advantage. The contingent of die-hard fans traveling with their teams as they progress in the postseason will be there. That wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s or ’90s, but we live in a fast-paced digital age and it’s about time the NFL adopted that mentality for its vaunted schedule. Coaching staff doesn’t have to join HUDL or swap game cartridges when they fly into town before playing. The current model is crisp, regimented, and frankly a snoozefest. The dynamic pop-up schedule suggested here is the kick in the pants the NFL needs.