With the 2021 NFL league year quickly approaching, nearly a third of the franchises are in a frenzy to juggle their rosters and get out of the salary cap hell they are facing after the cap was reduced eight percent year over year from $198.2 million down to $182.5 million, its lowest since 2018.
Of course, one of the main reasons for the salary cap retraction was due to the COVID-19 pandemic that limited fan attendance. However, a more concerning trend has emerged regarding the viewership of the league’s championship game, the Super Bowl. The most recent big game had nearly 23 million fewer American TV viewers than its peak six years ago for Super Bowl 49.
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Worst Super Bowl TV viewership since 2006
Overall, the 2010s have been quite strong for the NFL Super Bowl in terms of American TV viewers with yearly increases until more recently.
The above image from Statista provides a look at the yearly Super Bowl viewership from 1990 to 2021. The peak in that graph was Super Bowl 49 in 2015 between the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks with 114.44 million viewers.
Of course, that Super Bowl is most remembered for Seahawks QB Russell Wilson throwing an interception on a second-and-goal from the one-yard line with a timeout in hand and Marshawn Lynch on their roster.
Since that Super Bowl, there has been a downward trend that hit a low of 91.63 million viewers last month for Super Bowl 55 between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Kansas City Chiefs. That was the fewest viewers since the 2006 Super Bowl between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks, which had 90.75 million viewers.
Fewer viewers, cap retracts for the first time in a decade
With the downturn in viewership for the sport’s biggest game in combination with the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, it’s no surprise that we are seeing the salary cap dip. The last time that we saw a retraction in the salary cap was over 10 years ago when the cap was $123 million in 2009 and went down to $120 million in 2011 (there was no salary cap in 2010).
As a result, teams now have to make some important decisions on how to move forward. Some must reduce their rosters to adhere to the cap, while others will be licking their chops at the opportunity to land a big name.
Teams that are currently over the cap
As it stands, nine of the 32 teams are over the salary cap for the 2021 NFL year, including the favorite in the Super Bowl 56 odds, the Kansas City Chiefs. The team in the worst cap situation is the Los Angeles Rams, who are $32 million over the limit, and the New Orleans Saints, not far off at $23 million over.
While players for the Rams and Saints may be on the hot seat of being cut, this is good news for the Jacksonville Jaguars, New York Jets and New England Patriots, the three teams with the most cap space for this upcoming free agency.
Cap Space and Free Agency
The cap space available, or the lack thereof, definitely has a dramatic impact on trades and free agents. There are some notable names such as Deshaun Watson and Russell Wilson who may be on the trade block. Some teams, though, would have to shed a lot of cap space to make room for their salaries. However, it opens the door for a team like the Jets to make a move and quickly become more of a force in the AFC East.
2021 Free Agents
There are an abundance of high-end free agents available this year, which could make it the most exciting free agency in recent memory. With the likes of edge rusher Shaq Barrett, wide receivers Kenny Golladay, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Will Fuller and running back Aaron Jones hitting the market, the NFL Super Bowl futures are surely going to have quite the change over the next few weeks.
Will the cap climb again?
Perhaps the biggest potential free agent or trade bait was going to be Dak Prescott, who just signed a massive contract worth $40 million per year. Now, you would think this would put the Cowboys in cap trouble, but they front-loaded his contract with just a $22.2-million hit this season. With new TV deals on the horizon, the NFL may see large revenues and thus the cap should rise again.
It is reported that in 2020, the NFL lost between $3 billion and $4 billion in revenue but with TV deals such as Monday Night Football on ESPN expiring at the end of 2021, the league is looking for 70 to 100 percent increases on the cost of the rights. If the NFL is to get such an increase, that could equal upwards of $4 billion of net revenue per year, which will surely have a great impact on the salary cap.
So, for the teams that have cap space now and are looking at free agents, they would be wise to front-load some contracts while these TV deals are sorted out.