Sure they are currently the #1 sport in the nation -- in terms of popularity, quality gameplay, parity and any other metric you want to use (this point is inarguable so don't even attempt it) -- but they are doing everything they can do kill the proverbial golden goose.
I could cite the fact that they black out a team with a large stadium and a tiny market (Buffalo: 3rd smallest market, 7th largest stadium) for non-sellout games, but don't prorate to take into account smaller stadiums with bigger markets (Chicago: third largest market, smallest stadium).
I could cite their not allowing two double-headers.
I could cite their ridiculous rule of only allowing 30 seconds of an interview for broadcast a few years ago. Or the fact that one network couldn't show another network's highlights while a game was still in progress. (Are you really trying to tell me that the league is trying to avoid saturation????)
I could cite the fact that there might be a lockout in 2011, and that certain owners (see: Jones, Jerry; Snyder, Daniel) are trying to circumvent the revenue-sharing that made the league the greatest sports league in the world in the first place.
I do worry about all of these things. They seem to portend pride before the fall. Baseball, boxing and horse-racing were the three most popular sports in the year 1900, and they are all laughingstock now. (Yes, I said they are ALL a laughingstock.)
But the thing that worries me the most is the idea that the league is thinking of changing the number of games in a given year from 16 to 18. This would a be a colossal mistake, and a possible sea-change in the future of the league.
Let's start with this: if they go to 18 games, they will never -- EVER -- go back. It will be permanent. And it will be horrible. And for me it has nothing to do with more injuries or not allowing rookies to make the team.
The league switched to a 16-game schedule in 1978, and it's no coincidence that it matches exactly to the point at which football started leaving basketball in the dust in terms of popularity.
16 games is absolutely perfect, and the reason it is perfect is that football is a game of fours.
What the hell am I talking about? Well, think of it this way: baseball is a games of threes and nines. Three outs, three strikes, three bases (plus home plate); nine players on each team, nine innings. Those numbers really do speak to the history and symmetry of baseball. They are the essence of why the game works and carries such tradition. It's why people like Billy Beane compare players from 1908 to players from 2008.
When the NFL switched to 16 games, it found its perfect number. Football is a game of fours. Four downs, four quarters, four divisions in each conference, four teams in each division. Sixteen games is four times four: most coaches split each season into four "quarters" of four games each to gauge their success. Even the 100-yard field can be split into four "quarters" of 25 yards each for offensive strategies.
And unlike any other sport in America, you can spit out a record to give an immediate shorthand of how good a team is. They are a 2-14 team, a 7-9 team, a 12-4 team, or a 14-2 team. (In the Patriots' case, they were a 18-1 team, but that's a different story.)
You won't hear anyone saying "I think the Twins will be a 91-71 team this year."
We all know about 16, and I'll bet it helps many of us with our math. We know the shorthand, let's stop the prospect of a team going 9-9, or 16-2. Or 4-14.
It doesn't sound right!
They always say that no sports organization is better than the NFL at improving its product and reducing flaws. This has always been true, but now they are becoming too clever by half. I know that an extra two games would add some extra revenue, but it's a permanent solution to a temporary problem (ie. the recession).
When the NFL switched the playoff format to allow 12 teams for the 1990 season, it was absolutely the right move. 10 was too few, 14 was too many. Twelve is perfect: it leaves good teams out of the playoffs, only allowing the VERY good ones in (in theory anyway). In that way it distinguished itself from Baseball (who only allowed 2 per league at the time, and only 4 per league today), as well as hockey and basketball (in which more teams make the playoffs than miss them).
Let's not forget that in 1993, the league experimented with an 18-week schedule (16 games for each team with two bye weeks). It was such a disaster, and so disruptive -- to teams' routines and fans' viewing habits -- that it was scrapped after only one season. Unless the league wants 2011 to look like the strike-shortened season of 1987 (ie. all f'd up) where they only played 15 games, they need to leave a good thing alone.
Eighteen games is a cash-grab, no more. It doesn't improve the product. It doesn't give two welcome extra weeks. (We are always geeked for the playoffs to start.) And there is no upside. It's going to provide for more sellouts, maybe, but also more blackouts for struggling teams. It's not for the fans, it's for the separation of loyal fans and their money.
If 18 wasn't good enough for a legal drinking age, it sure as shit isn't good enough for the League.