N.F.L. players have approved a new 10-year labor deal that will include the first major expansion to the N.F.L. season in more than four decades.
A narrow majority of the league’s roughly 2,000 players signed off on the deal, paving the way for the addition of a 17th regular season game, an expanded playoff format, more limited training camps and a relaxation of rules governing the use of marijuana.
The union said in a statement that the final tally had 1,019 players voting for the deal and 959 voting against it. Voting was extended by 48 hours, until midnight Saturday, to give players more time to evaluate the pros and cons of the deal.
The passage of the current contract comes just days before the end of the league’s business year on March 18. Teams will now have just hours to assign franchise tags on players on their rosters and to start bidding for free agents, which this year includes stars like the quarterbacks Tom Brady and Philip Rivers. Given the limitations on travel because of the risk of spreading coronavirus, teams will have to evaluate players by telephone or video conference. This includes college players that teams want to speak with before the Draft, which is currently set to begin on April 23.
The league and union may vote to delay the start of the new league year to give teams more time to prepare.
The vote, in which only a simple majority was needed to ratify the contract, comes after a tumultuous period for the N.F.L. Players Association, during which many of the league’s biggest stars publicly pushed against the deal because of the extra games and what they viewed as insufficient concessions by the owners. The margin of 60 votes, or 3 percent, reflected the level of discontent with key elements of the deal, most notably the expansion of the regular season.
Winning union approval of a successor to the current agreement, which was set to expire in March 2021, is a major victory for the owners, who have pushed hard to close a deal with the players so they can focus on negotiating the raft of broadcast rights contracts that expire in the coming years. More than half of the league’s revenue — around $8 billion a year — come from the sale of broadcast rights, and the next set of contracts were expected to produce a windfall for the league before the recent downturn in the stock market sent the shares of media companies tumbling. The economic outlook clouded by the coronavirus urn will cool the bidding for broadcast rights.
N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell said in a statement after the results were announced that the agreement, which will run through the 2030 season, “will provide substantial benefits to all current and retired players, increase jobs, ensure continued progress on player safety, and give our fans more and better football.”
In the agreement, the players will see an increase in the percentage of their share of overall revenue, to 48 percent, from about 47 percent now, with the possibility of an additional 0.8 percentage point increase based on the value of the new media contracts that the league signs. While each percentage point increase is worth an extra $150 million for the players per year, based on the N.F.L.’s current revenue, the 48 percent share that the players will receive is still well below the 53 percent they received through 2011.
To induce broadcasters to pay billions of dollars more for the right to show N.F.L. games, the owners convinced the players to play a 17th game, the first expansion of the regular season since the league went to 16 games in 1978, and to increase the number of teams that qualify for the playoffs to 14 from 12. Those changes, and a reduction to preseason games to offset them, could take effect as soon as the 2020-21 season.
“Having that firm platform for a long period of time is a big deal for the league, a big deal for the sponsors, a big deal for the fans, and big deal for everyone connected with the game,” Arthur Blank, the owner of the Atlanta Falcons, said before the Super Bowl. “You don’t want to negotiate any important deal at the deadline because then it compromises decisions.”
In recent weeks, some veteran players including Richard Sherman and Aaron Rodgers publicly opposed extending the regular season because they feared a rise in injuries. Other players used social media accounts to voice their opinion that the proposed revenue split was still too low. A few players, including the newly elected union president, Cleveland Browns center J.C. Tretter, tried to explain the benefits as well as the shortfalls.
“We know and understand that players have been split on this deal, including members of our EC,” Tretter said in a statement after the vote. “Going forward, it is our duty to lead, however we may feel as individuals, to bring our men together and to continue to represent the interests of our entire membership.”
Tretter’s comments appeared aimed at players who complained not just about the content of the deal, but the way it was negotiated. Russell Okung, an offensive tackle on the Los Angeles Chargers and a former member of the union’s executive committee, which is responsible for negotiations, filed a complaint in early March with the National Labor Relations Board accusing the N.F.L.P.A. staff, including its executive director, DeMaurice Smith, of forcing a vote on the deal over the objections of its executive committee, a potential violation of the union’s constitution.
Last month, the 11 players on the executive committee to the extraordinary step of voting, 6-5, not to endorse the deal. At a meeting the following week, the 32 player representatives also declined to endorse the agreement, but agreed to let the full membership vote on it.
In the end, all of those concerns were nullified by the slim majority of players who voted yes to the agreement. Roughly 60 percent of players are paid minimum salaries, and the current agreement will give these rank-and-file players a pay raise of about 20 percent in the coming year. They will also see increases to their pensions and other benefits.
To ease player concerns about the agreement increasing the season’s length, the owners agreed to eliminate one preseason game and to limit the number of padded practices that can be held during training camp. Players will get a bye week after the third and final preseason game. Two more teams will qualify for the postseason, increasing to seven per conference and eliminating a bye week for the second-seeded teams in the A.F.C. and N.F.C., but will mean bonus checks for a greater number of players.
The new agreement curtails some of the commissioner’s powers to penalize players. In the new agreement, an arbitrator will be selected by the league and union to hear decisions. Players cannot appeal the findings, only the severity of the discipline to the Commissioner.
The players will also receive a share of revenue from gambling operations in stadiums, including wagers on other sports and games. Betting on sports is legal in Nevada and New Jersey, where N.F.L. teams play. Legislation aimed at legalizing sports betting is under consideration in many other states.
All players’ pensions and annuities will also increase. The size of rosters and practice squads will also grow, and weekly salaries for practice squad players will grow, too. Workout rules in the off-season and training camp will be eased and the league’s drug policy will be revised to eliminate suspensions for players who test positive for marijuana, and those tests will be based on a threshold more than four times higher than under past policy.
Though retired players do not vote on labor agreements, they will see some improvements in their benefits. Players who retired before 1993 who have only three credited seasons will now be eligible to receive benefits, compared to the four years that were currently needed. Former players will also see a bump in the value of their pensions.
But the agreement also trimmed some disability benefits. Inactive players who collect up to $135,000 year, or $11,250 a month, in disability benefits will now have that amount reduced by the amount of money they receive from Social Security.