NFL would consider Saturday games if there’s no college football in the fall

FOXBOROUGH, MASSACHUSETTS - DECEMBER 29:  Tom Brady #12 of the New England Patriots talks to the offensive line in a huddle during the first quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Gillette Stadium on December 29, 2019 in Foxborough, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)
The Patriots huddle at midfield. –Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

The NFL would consider rescheduling some games for Saturdays during the upcoming 2020 regular season if there is no college football being played this fall, multiple people familiar with the planning of the league and franchise owners said Wednesday.

But the league would be unlikely to pursue Saturday games, which could require a waiver of restrictions under its broadcast-related exemption from antitrust laws, if even just a few college football conferences are playing in the fall, according to those people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the NFL was not divulging its plans publicly amid the tumult to the college season created by the novel coronavirus pandemic.

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Games on Friday nights also could be considered, one of those people said, although that is correlated more to the state of high school football nationwide than it is college football.

NFL leaders and owners were trying to figure out the ramifications Wednesday of the announcements made a day earlier that the Big Ten and Pac-12 were canceling their fall seasons and would consider playing in the spring. But the other three of the sport’s elite Power Five conferences — the Southeastern Conference, the ACC and the Big 12 — have expressed that they continue to plan to play in the fall, if possible.

If the SEC, ACC, and Big 12 switch course and end up canceling fall football, the NFL would contemplate rescheduling some games for Saturdays. One of the people with knowledge of the league’s inner workings said there would be “a real opportunity” for Saturday NFL games if college football isn’t playing. Another said that “there could certainly be Saturday games if there is no college football.” A third said the television networks would covet Saturday NFL games under those circumstances, and the league would be eager to meet the TV demand.

The NFL, which declined to comment for this story, could suffer revenue reductions because of games being played in stadiums with few or no fans as a result of the pandemic, and shifting some games to Saturdays could create additional revenue.

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The Sports Broadcasting Act of 1961 exempts the NFL from antitrust laws for its broadcasting rights. It also effectively protects college and high school football by restricting the NFL’s broadcasting rights during those sports’ regular seasons. One person close to the situation said the NFL “would need a waiver for anything to happen” on rescheduling, even if college football is not playing. But another said it’s not clear if a waiver would be required if college football is entirely shut down in the fall. It’s also not clear, that person said, if any waiver would come from Congress or the U.S. Department of Justice. An “understanding” with the DOJ might suffice, that person said.

The NFL probably would abandon plans for Saturday games if a few college football conferences play in the fall, according to one of the people with knowledge of the league’s inner workings. That scenario would have the legal issue of the waiver, that person said, adding that the NFL also would be leery of damaging its relationship with college football. Another person said the league hadn’t yet contemplated its approach to those circumstances.

The league also could consider playing some Friday night games, according to one of the people familiar with the NFL’s planning. It’s not clear how strong that possibility would be, given the varying approaches being taken nationwide to high school sports in the fall.

The league would face potential decisions about next year’s NFL scouting combine and NFL draft if some college football conferences play in the spring. The combine usually takes place in February and the draft is to begin in late April.

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One person close to the situation said the NFL had “no idea about the draft yet,” but added: “If the colleges play in the spring, we would have to consider moving the date.” Another said that the topic has come up within league circles and NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell’s message has been that the league will adapt as needed.

The NFL informed teams in early July that it was canceling this year’s supplemental draft. In the years in which a supplemental draft is held, players who didn’t enter the regular draft but then had their college eligibility altered get the chance to be selected. This year, NFL prospects whose college programs won’t be playing in the fall can begin preparing for next spring’s regular draft, and will have decide whether to participate in a spring collegiate season.

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