The NFL strives to become a year-round player in the professional sports attention economy. After years of being stuffed in their lockers between May and July by the NBA, the doofuses in the NFL’s league office figured the best way to get fans talking about their product in the offseason was to announce their upcoming slate for 2022 by trickling out details of select matchups as if each were a diamond being smuggled from a coal mine.
Unfortunately, for a league that wants to milk its schedule release for cheap ratings, they’re doing it all wrong. The entire 18-week slate will be released tonight at 8 pm E.T. However, they’re selling themselves short. One primetime schedule announcement in May is too conservative of an approach.
The mantra for the NFL’s schedule should be “Anytime, anywhere” or “Stay ready, you ain’t gotta get ready.” The schedule release should be a weekly primetime special every Tuesday night between September and early January, where each team discovers who their opponent for the next week will be. That’s 18 weeks of surprise and intrigue instead of some try-hard Thursday night special four months before the season even kicks off.
ESPN’s College Football Playoff Rankings Show already does something akin to this. During the last six weeks of the regular season, ESPN drops the college football playoff committee’s updated ranking of the top six teams in the country. However, in typical NFL fashion, they can dial the drama up to a 15. Find a studio in New York City or any select NFL city across the country, haul in rowdy fans or a studio audience and enlist Rich Eisen or Nate Burleson to host the weekly NFL Schedule Show.
The pop-up schedule wouldn’t just be a surprise to fans but also its 32 franchises. Upending the natural order of the sports schedule may upset fans at first, but change is always uncomfortable. For decades, the NFL Draft took place 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 playoff with more week-to-week spontaneity than any professional sport because of its one-and-done nature. Extending that scheduling method to the regular season is the inevitable endpoint.
The pop-up scheduling model would alter how teams and coaches prep, but modern technological advances have simplified that process. NFL coaches spend an egregious amount of time away from their 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 pause from breaking down tape and reconnecting with their long-lost families early in the week might counterbalance the grievances over weekly prep.
Where is the fun in staring at a static schedule for eight months? Imagine the chatter this will create in Week 16 when the 8-7 Cowboys are fighting for their playoff lives and discover the Los Angeles Rams are their Sunday Night Football opponent. The existing model is played out. Of course something will have 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 to it. Having teams spending their Tuesday nights, Wednesdays and Thursdays scrambling is the most obnoxious, yet riveting way for the league to function. Since when does the NFL care about making things easier for its employees anyways? This is 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 prep for potential opponents is more than enough time.
Turning the NFL schedule release into a weekly mystery will make it more difficult for fans to book trips for away games, but it will create a more pure home-field advantage. The contingent of diehard fans who travel with their teams when they advance in the postseason will be there. This wouldn’t have worked in the 1980s or 90s, but we live in a fast-paced digital age and it’s time for the NFL to adopt that mentality for its vaunted schedule. Coaching staffs won’t have to join HUDL or exchange game tapes when they fly into town before they play. The current model is crisp, regimented and honestly a snoozefest. The dynamic pop-up schedule proposed here is the kick in the pants the NFL needs.