The National Football League continues to consider expanding its schedule to 18 games, from 16. The main debate has been over the wear and tear on the players from these extra two games. But should the number of games increase, the league will also have to figure out how to add the extra games into its scheduling system.
Under the current setup, there are 32 N.F.L. teams divided into two conferences, each with four four-team divisions. The scheduling is quite clean: A team plays the other three teams in its division twice each, for a total of six games. It plays all the teams in one other division in its conference (on a three-year rotating basis), for four more games. It plays all the teams in one division in the other conference (on a four-year rotation), for four more games.
The last two games are what you might call “parity games.” Each team plays the two teams in its conference (that it isn’t already playing) who finished in the same position the previous year. So first-place teams play first-place teams, third-place teams play third-place teams, etc. The purpose of these games is to increase parity by making the schedule for the weaker teams a little easier. Incidentally, it also adds a few more marquee match-ups of top teams, which TV broadcasters always like.
The schedule used to emphasize parity even more. Back when some of the divisions had five teams, the fifth-place teams got to play all the other fifth-place teams in the league ... and played one of them twice. Nearly every year one of the fifth-place teams rode this cushy schedule to the playoffs.
Another scheduling trend is the shrinking percentage of division games. When the schedule was 14 games long until 1978, teams in five-team divisions played 8 of 14 games against division rivals, or 57%. That first shrunk to 8/16, 50% and now with exclusive four-team divisions, 6/16, 38%. If the schedule goes to 18 games, teams will be playing only 6/18, 33% of their games against their own division.
So what’s going to happen if/when the schedule goes to 18? There’s always a chance the N.F.L. will revamp the schedule completely, but if they want to keep things basically the same, there are two logical ways to schedule games 17 and 18.
First, they could add two more “parity” games against teams from the other conference. This would provide eight more attractive first-vs.-first games each season. (It would also add eight more fourth-vs.-fourth games, but let’s pretend we didn’t notice that.)
Or they could throw out the parity games entirely and use the four free slots to allow teams to play another entire division, either in or out of conference.
The second scenario does continue the trend away from parity games. But the first makes for a more attractive product. Maybe the league can package these new “interleague parity games” (under a more appealing name — Conference Challenge?) and sell them to a new network. Or use them to leverage the N.F.L. network onto more cable systems.
That’s sounds like the likelier bet.