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Chiefs preseason in limbo as NFL and NFLPA grapple over the number of games

The league and the players union are locked in a dispute over the number of preseason games — and that’s just the beginning.

Oakland Raiders v Kansas City Chiefs Photo by David Eulitt/Getty Images

On Wednesday, we learned that the NFL was planning to cancel the first and fourth games of each team’s preseason schedule — a move that would leave the Kansas City Chiefs with two road preseason games against the Arizona Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys on August 22 and August 29. Then we learned the league intended for the remaining exhibition games to be somehow adjusted so that each franchise would have both a home and away preseason matchup.

At the time, we expected a final announcement of the schedule on Thursday or Friday. But by Wednesday night, NFL Players Association (NFLPA) representatives made it clear that they had a different view about the preseason schedule, suggesting that the players might want to avoid preseason contests altogether. ESPN’s Dan Graziano reported on Friday that the NFLPA board had strongly upheld their view.

An NFL Players Association source said Friday that the union’s board of player representatives had voted to recommend scrapping all 2020 preseason games. The matter came to a vote during Thursday evening’s conference call with NFLPA player reps, and the source said the vote was unanimous.

It’s unclear whether the NFL will consider the players’ recommendation. The league has yet to formally announce the reduction of the preseason from four games to two, although a source told ESPN’s Kevin Seifert on Wednesday that the decision had been made.

It’s clear the league believes it has the power to unilaterally change the preseason schedule. But as NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero noted on Wednesday evening, the NFLPA’s position is that games being played during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic represent a significant change in working conditions — one that they believe should require the union’s approval.

Among the concerns of a two-game slate from the perspective of players is the added exposure and risk for games that hold no consequence in the standings, Pelissero reported. Another concern is that some players would have just 23 days from their report date to their first preseason games.

From the league’s perspective, the cancellation of additional preseason games represents a significant loss of revenue to individual teams — one that goes beyond fans in the stands — and a chance to fully prepare for the season.

As we’ve previously reported, if the entire NFL season were to be played without fans in the stands, it could represent a loss of $100 million in game-day revenue for each franchise. But the actual cancellation of games — even in preseason — also creates a loss of lucrative television revenue. For regular-season games, television money goes to the league, where it is the primary driver of the NFL’s salary cap. Preseason broadcast revenue, however, goes directly to individual teams from contracts they negotiate with local media outlets.

In addition, franchises depend on exhibition games to evaluate newly-signed players — both rookies and veterans — “under the lights” of actual competition. Without them, it stands to reason that very few of the rookies that have been signed in the offseason — especially those who were not selected in the draft — will not have much chance to proves themselves as NFL-ready.

While it’s true that teams often go into their final preseason games with a pretty clear idea of which rookies will make their final roster, that’s usually with the benefit of an entire on-field offseason program — one that has already been severely curtailed by the pandemic.

So for both the league and the union, circumstances have made these exhibition games — which we would normally consider to be pretty meaningless — part of a conflict that may be difficult for the two sides to resolve.

And that’s just one area of disagreement. With Chiefs training camp scheduled to begin in just three weeks, many other issues remain undecided — including the specific training camp schedule, the number of players teams will be allowed to have practice together (and even how many they will be allowed to bring to camp), whether players who have tested positive for the coronavirus will be considered to have suffered a “football injury” — and more.

That’s a substantial list of pretty important issues — with little time to get them all addressed to everyone’s satisfaction.

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