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NFL in 2050

One might think a sport that could compete with God for the attention of Americans on Sundays would stay relatively consistent in terms of rules, but this is far from the case. Sports of a similar ilk, like soccer in Europe or cricket in India, create a sort of standpattism among fans in which any change to traditional rules is criticized and rejected. The virtual assisted referee (VAR) in soccer comes to mind as a technological evolution of the game that objectively makes the competition fairer. However, the English Premier League and the UEFA Champions League have failed to implement it largely due to fan outrage. American football is very different in this way. It seems to constantly adapt and change with the times to be as successful as possible. At the time of the 1966 NFL-AFL merger, quarterbacks couldn't throw a pass unless they were at least 5 yards behind the line of scrimmage. An offense was penalized for throwing the ball repeatedly on a set of downs. Defenders grabbing an opposing player's facemask and dragging them down was considered a good tackle. Communication with the sidelines was not allowed. The NFL changed these rules with two main goals in mind. First, to grow the game by making it more exciting and accessible for their fans, and second, to make the game fairer and safer for their star players who create that excitement. Using this precedent, we can assume that by the year 2050, NFL football will look much different than it does today. There is evidence that the NFL could modify itself on all levels of its business. In this paper, we will focus on potential changes to in-game rules and league structure.


The most important in-game rule adjustments for the NFL and their players regard safety. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is the most dangerous threat to the continuation of the NFL because not only does it open up the league to lawsuits from former players, but as more information comes out about long term effects, less parents will be willing to enroll their children in youth football. Over time this will significantly damage the on-field product, with premiere athletes opting to play less dangerous sports like basketball or baseball. The NFL has already attempted to curb the likelihood of brain injuries by changing the most common play in which these injuries occur, the kickoff. The league hoped they could increase the number of touchbacks and decrease the number of returns by moving the spot of the ball 5 yards, from the 30-yard line to the 35-yard line. The league also moved the ball's position after a touchback is rewarded, from the 20-yard line to the 25. This was meant to incentivize kick returners to take the touchback more often and give their team a free 5 yards. A kick return has the highest percentage of high-speed collisions, with players lining up at opposite ends of the field and essentially sprinting head-on into the opposition. Although the amount of kickoff returns decreased, the number is still not low enough, and eventually, kickoffs will have to be taken out of the game altogether. League officials with the NFL Competition Committee hinted at this eventuality in 2018. Green Bay Packers President Mark Murphy, a committee member, presented statistics showing that kickoffs were five times more likely to result in a concussion than other plays. While eliminating these plays appears to be the right course of action, it has downsides. Without mentioning the loss of a dynamic and exciting element to the game, it will also greatly affect how teams build their 53-man rosters. Peter Schrager, NFL Insider and host of Good Morning Football, has pointed out that hundreds of players make a living playing special teams.

In many cases, these players start their careers on special teams and work their way into starting roles at more premium positions. Eliminate kickoffs, and that eliminates an entire avenue for success. Unfortunately for those players, health and safety must be prioritized, and kickoffs account for six percent of the in-game plays and 17 percent of head injuries. That type of disparity is hard to ignore.


As mentioned before, player safety is only one motivation for the NFL to change a rule. Some rules need to be changed because they are broken. For example, overtime rules need to change. Currently, the team that wins the coin toss and gets the ball first has an unfair advantage. In an NFL overtime, a touchdown ends the game. Too often, only one team will get an opportunity with the ball. Traditionalists believe these rules are in place because NFL teams need to be competent on both sides of the ball, offence, and defence. While this argument used to have merit, those using it to support the rules are omitting the fact that recent NFL rule changes have skewed the advantage in favour of the offence. Roughing the passer calls is at an all-time high. The same can be said for defensive pass interference. It has never been easier to play offense in the NFL, and it has never been harder to play defence.


Two proposals have been submitted to the NFL Competition Committee to change the overtime rules since the Lombardi Trophy was awarded in mid-February. The Tennessee Titans' proposal maintains the first touchdown wins format, but the team that scores the touchdown also needs to convert a two-point try. The Titans' proposal meets the two sides of the argument in the middle and allows the opportunity for a team who has given up the touchdown to have a chance with the ball. That team must first stop the two-point conversion, though, bringing back the original argument that puts the onus too much on defence. The Indianapolis Colts and Philadelphia Eagles also put forward a joint proposal that would emulate the NCAA Division 1 overtime format. Each team will have an offensive possession starting at their 25-yard line. If neither team scores a touchdown on that possession, it will become sudden death. The first to score points wins. The NFL has recently approved this rule, but for post-season games only. By the year 2050, the Colts and Eagles proposed format will be implemented throughout the entire schedule because it fits with the natural rule progressions based on offence and fairness. 


Speaking of natural progression, the natural move for any empire is expansion. The NFL has built its sports empire within the continental United States with 32 of the most valuable franchises in the world. The success in all 32 markets can only support the idea that the NFL could succeed anywhere. That is why in the year 2050, the NFL will have expanded from 32 teams in one country to 36 in three countries. Teams will be added in St. Louis, Austin, Toronto, Canada, and London, England.


St. Louis is the most obvious candidate for expansion. After moving from Los Angeles to Missouri in 1995, the franchise was profitable for 21 years in the Midwest. In 2016, the team moved back to Los Angeles due to a change in ownership. Stan Kroenke purchased the team in 2010 and was approved by the league knowing the NFL's desire to move a franchise back to Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States. This would happen six years after Kroenke's purchase, much to the dismay of the St Louis fanbase. If a four-team expansion were to happen, St. Louis would be at the front of the line as a football-hungry city with an NFL stadium already in place.


The next American city that will get a serious look for expansion is Austin, Texas. Austin is the fastest-growing metropolis in the United States and the only city with a population of over 1 million people without a big four professional sports team. The good thing about a burgeoning population is that it usually comes with rapid economic growth. Citizens of Austin have seen a five percent annual growth in their wages over the last three years, which is twice the national average. Having fans with disposable income allows the team to increase its profit margins, drawing potential corporate sponsors' attention. These sponsors have also followed the economic growth to Austin, with eight Fortune 500 tech companies establishing headquarters in the city. In a recent Los Angeles Times article, global economic reporter Don Lee said he believes that high corporate taxes in California are pushing companies to create a new Silicon Valley in Texas. By 2050, Texas Silicon Valley will have an NFL franchise that it easily supports.


The next two locations have already been subjected to market testing by the NFL, so it's clear they are interested in expansion. By 2050, Toronto, Canada, and London, England, will be home to NFL franchises. This level of expansion is unchartered waters for the league regarding permanent residency, but these cities have hosted many games over the past fifteen years. England's expansion would create obstacles in terms of scheduling and travel. Still, its population of 56 million untapped sports fans has enticed the NFL to try. 30 games have been played in England since the experimental NFL London Series began in 2007. An additional three games will be played in the upcoming 2022 season. The NFL also reported that over 4 million people in England tuned in to watch the Super Bowl in 2021, which has grown substantially since the NFL started the direct marketing campaign. Where there is smoke, there is fire, and it seems the NFL's London fire grows stronger by the year. It may even be a good name for the eventual team, the London Fire, 350 years between the actual event makes the name fair game, right?


Toronto presents the easiest route to international expansion. The neighbour to the north has already been included in two expansion projects across the big four sports, the Blue Jays of Major League Baseball in 1977 and the Raptors of the National Basketball Association in 1995. The NFL already has a thriving fanbase in Canada, where 8.1 million watched the Super Bowl in 2021. Ontario legalized sports betting this past August, and the NFL viewership for the 2021 season subsequently increased week to week at almost a double-digit rate. The Canadian fanbase also skews on the younger side. Nearly half of the 18–44-year-old football fans exclusively watch the NFL. This statistic bodes well for the staying power of the Toronto expansion franchise. Toronto is not only the corporate capital of Canada, providing limitless sponsorship opportunities, but it's the 4th largest city in North America. The fact that the city doesn’t already have an NFL team is puzzling, but by 2050 that will have changed.


With the addition of four new teams, the division and conference structures currently in place will no longer work. The modern NFL has two conferences, AFC and NFC, which contain four divisions of four teams. In the new format, 18 teams will be in each conference, with Austin and Toronto joining the AFC and St. Louis and London joining the NFC. In 2050, the league will throw aside the East, West, North, and South divisional names because eighteen is not divisible by four. Instead, each conference will have an East, West, and Central division consisting of six teams each.


Potential Division Alignment-


American Football Conference (AFC)-





Buffalo Bills

Cleveland Browns

Denver Broncos

Baltimore Ravens

Cincinnati Bengals

Houston Texans

New England Patriots

Indianapolis Colts

Kansas City Chiefs

New York Jets

Tennessee Titans

Las Vegas Raiders

Pittsburgh Steelers

Miami Dolphins

Los Angeles Chargers

Toronto Tundra (Expansion)

Jacksonville Jaguars

Austin Aces (Expansion)


National Football Conference (NFC)-





Atlanta Falcons

Chicago Bears

Arizona Cardinals

Carolina Panthers

Dallas Cowboys

Green Bay Packers

New York Giants

Detroit Lions

Los Angeles Rams

Philadelphia Eagles

New Orleans Saints

Minnesota Vikings

Washington Commanders

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

San Francisco 49ers

London Fire (Expansion)

St. Louis Archers (Expansion)

Seattle Seahawks


Just like the current NFL playoff format, seven teams will qualify from each conference. The top seed in each conference will still get a bye to the divisional round, but the similarities end here. In the new three-division format, the top two teams in each division automatically qualify for the playoffs. In addition, one wildcard team from each conference will also be eligible, as opposed to three wildcard teams who qualify under the modern rules. Adding four teams to the league and keeping the same amount of playoff teams will increase competition and maintain the importance of division rivalries that may have been lost in the new format.


In conclusion, by 2050, the NFL will have maintained its current mindset of changing rules based on player safety and fairness. Kickoffs will be eradicated, eliminating a portion of roster spots but significantly decreasing the chance of serious head injuries for the remaining players. The overtime rules will also continue to progress, and the recent rule change will be applied to not only the postseason but the entire schedule. The most significant change for the league will be a rapid expansion, breaking down borders to create an international league. In capitalism, a thriving business’s most lucrative strategy is reinvesting in itself. Adding four new markets to their revenue stream is the natural next step for a league as successful as the NFL.


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