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Volume 20 No. 42
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NFL plans to push openers up to Labor Day weekend if schedule is ever expanded

The NFL plans to begin the 2013 season during Labor Day weekend if the league expands the number of games to more than 16 that year, sources said.

The 2013 season is the first year the schedule can be expanded under terms of the NFL’s new collective-bargaining agreement.

While schedule expansion appears unlikely because of player opposition, the league has to consider the issue now because it needs to set a firm date for the 2014 Super Bowl in New York — perhaps as soon as next week, at the NFL owners meeting.

Presuming the game is set on the first Sunday in February 2014, and the season is later expanded to 18 games, the league expects to squeeze in the two extra weeks by starting the 2013 campaign a week early — which would put it on Labor Day weekend — and then eliminating the week off between the conference championship games and Super Bowl, the sources said.

John Mara, the New York Giants co-owner, would not confirm the scenario but agreed that it sounded reasonable. He added, however, that player opposition to expanding the season rendered the issue moot, in his opinion.

Mara is one of the few owners on record opposed to expanding the season from the current 16 games to 17 or 18 games.

Alfred Kelly, CEO of 2014 NY/NJ Super Bowl Host Co., told reporters last week he expected an NFL vote to set a date for the game at the owners meetings in Houston next week, though one source said it might occur instead by the end of the year.

The NFL generally had a Labor Day weekend start through the 1990s, but broadcasters protested, said Mike Trager, a sports TV consultant who previously worked for NBC Sports and recalled arguing with then-NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle to move the opening weekend later.

“The networks complained about it because of the ratings,” he said. “It was a very difficult weekend to start. But the biggest issue [now] would be the disruption of the existing schedule of programming that might overlap.”

CBS, for example, broadcasts the U.S. Open Tennis Championships over Labor Day weekend.

The players vociferously opposed schedule expansion earlier this year because of the increased risk of injury, and conventional wisdom before the owners and players reached a new CBA this summer was that the NFL had abandoned its quest for a longer season. The CBA, however, does include a provision allowing the league to expand the season starting in 2013, though the NFL must have player consent.

It is not believed that a Labor Day weekend start is something the NFL wants to plan for in future years. Instead, if the season were expanded, the league might move the Super Bowl later into February. That scenario would have the game on Presidents Day weekend, which could put it up against the NBA All-Star Game and the Daytona 500.

That is not an option for the 2014 game because the date for that game needs to be set very soon for logistical planning, such as reserving blocks of hotel rooms. If the game were scheduled in mid- to late-February and the season did not expand, the NFL then would have more than two weeks between the end of the playoffs and the Super Bowl.