There has been renewed talk recently about possible NFL expansion to Los Angeles, and internationally to London.
That discussion was kick-started, in part, by Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank who said, "There's been discussion about potentially having a franchise in London. I'm very optimistic."
Blank went on to talk about the importance of having a franchise in Los Angeles, as well as the potential for multiple teams in London in an interview with The MMQB's Peter King.
"I think it will start with an increased number of games," he said. "That will be translated into a very successful series of games, and eventually, I think a franchise. And maybe more than one. London's a big city."
So just how could an expanded NFL look?
Much of the reservation by fans and members of the media revolves around tinkering with the current 32 team alignment. That system, including the four divisions and six playoff teams per conference structure, is for some reason treated like a golden goose to be admired from a distance and left quietly undisturbed.
How soon people forget; the current system has only been in place since 2002, following the addition of the Houston Texans and league-wide realignment. Those doing the math while following along will realize that in 2001 the NFL had not only an odd number of total teams (31) but also unbalanced conferences. There were 16 teams in the AFC and 15 teams in the NFC, each conference with three divisions instead of the current four.
This should tell us a couple things.
First, while having symmetrical balance is great, the NFL is all about the bottom line. The NBA's Los Angeles Clippers just sold for $2 billion. What's an NFL team in L.A. worth? If the league and its owners can net $2 billion dollars, or more, for an expansion franchise then it's likely that will trump any concerns about competitive balance.
That's at least $125 million dollars each owner could pocket for an expansion franchise. Think about that for a second. The owners most certainly are!
In addition, the NFL's division and scheduling structure has traditionally been more fluid and flexible than in any of the of the other major American professional sports leagues. It's naive to think more change, big change, isn't coming soon.
While experts disagree on whether there will be expansion or just relocation, let's look into the crystal ball and have a little fun by assuming the expansionists are correct, and an extra $2 billion per franchise is too much for the owners to pass up. Most analysts agree that if expansion were to happen it would first mean new teams in two cities: Los Angeles and London.
What would the NFL do with the divisions and scheduling if a two-team expansion happened?
Here's one fairly radical, but very viable, possibility: Place the two new franchises in the NFC, and realign that conference to six divisions consisting of three teams each. The AFC, until further expansion (discussed below), would stay the same as it is today.
I'll breakdown the benefits and reasoning below, but here's how the new NFC could possibly look.
- New York Giants
- Tampa Bay
- Green Bay
- New Orleans
- St. Louis
- San Francisco
- Los Angeles
Each division winner would get a berth into the playoffs. All things being equal, that's a 33 percent chance at a auto-bid playoff berth for each team, better odds than the current 25 percent. There would also be two wildcard teams in the NFC for a total of eight playoff teams in the conference. The extra playoff team would help compensate for the two extra teams in the NFC.
Meanwhile, the AFC would keep the same current division structure, with seven teams advancing to the playoffs. That seven-team playoff format is currently being discussed by the owners, and the proposal looks like it will be adopted for the 2015 season. I won't go into great detail, but if you need a refresher you can check out this recent NBC Sports article.
Playing around with divisions is a fun exercise, but it won't mean much if the schedule won't work. Fortunately, it can happen pretty easily while keeping balance and traditional rivalries alive.
Here is how the new scheduling could work for the NFC each season. Remember, the AFC would stay the same under this proposal with one minor change I'll cover later. Rules 1-4 below are basically set up the same as the current NFL system. The only major change would be Rule 5.
1. Teams play other teams in their division twice per season. This doesn't change from the previous format. [4 games per team]
2. Each division plays an entire other NFC division, rotating yearly like the current system. [3 games per team]
3. Each division plays an entire other AFC division, rotating yearly like the current system. [4 games per team]
4. Teams play other teams from the NFC who finished in an equal divisional standing to them the previous year, excluding the team from the division covered in Rule 2 above. This is the same as it's currently set up in the NFL. For example, all teams who finished first would play each other, while the second place teams face off, and the third place teams play. [4 games per team]
5. Each team has one "traditional" out-of-division rival that it will play each season. This is much like Major League Baseball's "traditional rival" interleague matchups. This traditional rival is set and remains the same each year. [1 game per team] *5a. In cases where this would be a second game against the traditional rival, the series that season would be played home-and-home to maintain balance.
For the AFC, everything stays the same it currently is with one exception; they would also adopt Rule #5 in order to maintain a 16 game schedule.
One of the major benefits to this model is it allows the NFL to easily expand again (with two additional teams) to the AFC at any time! It's likely the owners would actually create a memorandum of understanding and timeline would be followed for expansion into the AFC. The NFL is experiencing such rapid growth worldwide in popularity and financially that eventual four team expansion seems almost inevitable. Just ask Arthur Blank.
Secondly, these traditional rivalries are kept in place without too much disruption. The obvious exception is the Cowboys, who would lose an annual matchup against a couple of their old NFC East pals. However, if there is one team the NFL wouldn't be worried about from an attendance and TV ratings standpoint it's those Cowboys. If there is such thing as a golden goose in the NFL, they're it. Dallas consistently draws massive TV ratings no matter who they play, and that isn't changing anytime soon. Furthermore, it's unlikely the league would want to force Dallas into travelling to London each year due to the distance, so a split makes sense.
Although this may seem counterintuitive to the point I just made, for the most part major regional rivalries remain intact, and in many cases enhanced, by the smaller divisions. Think about that new Dallas-New Orleans-Atlanta division. Talk about massive ratings and buzz. It could quickly turn into the must-watch division in football.
Plus, the league can keep the current, and admittedly very equitable, scheduling system with just a couple of minor tweaks involving the "traditional rivalry" games.
In real terms, how would this work for the Saints? Here's an example of a 16 game schedule under the new format.
1 - @ Atlanta (divisional game)
2- Tampa Bay (equal division standing game - see Rule #4 above)
3- Washington (NFC interdivisional game)
4- @ Tennessee (AFC interconference game)
5- Houston (AFC interconference game)
6- @ Tampa Bay (NFC interdivisional game. Second game vs. Tampa Bay due to Rule 5a)
7- @ Jacksonville (AFC interconference game)
8- Indianapolis (AFC interconference game)
9- @ London (equal division standing game - see Rule #4 above)
11- Dallas (divisional game)
12- Seattle (equal division standing game - see Rule #4 above)
13- Atlanta (divisional game)
14- @ St. Louis (equal division standing game - see Rule #4 above)
15- @ Carolina (NFC interdivisional game)
16- Green Bay (equal division standing game - see Rule #4 above)
17- @ Dallas (divisional game)
Looks like a pretty familiar schedule, right?
Most fans and media members consistently rush to point out the reasons NFL expansion won't work. The point of this exercise isn't to say that this is how the NFL would do it … but how they could. That's entirely the point. Expansion and realignment isn't as far fetched as it seems. It can work, and work well.
The game of football and the NFL are as popular as ever. While fans may shake their fists, post angry messages online, and lament the "good ole' days", they'll still turn on the television and watch every Sunday, and Monday, and Thursday. Just like they always have.
The NFL knows it, and that's why expansion is inevitable.
*Note: Seth Dunlap frequently co-hosts "Double Coverage" weekday mornings 6 to 9am on 3WL 1350 (AM), when Kristian Garic and T-Bob Hebert take time off. He produces our WWL Prep Football Roundup; and does amazing play-by-play of high school games. And, if you're a Game of Thrones fans, ya' gotta check out Seth & T-Bob's "ThroneCast" on YouTube. Although Seth's "real job" is an account executive for WWL, listen for his golden tones on WWL & 3WL and check back frequently, we'll feature a Seth story as fast as he can feed 'em.