The global pandemic had serious ramifications on the economics of professional sports in 2020/2021. The National Football League (NFL), which had seen steady increases in the salary cap every year since 2013, dropped for the first time in 2020 due to the pandemic. The NFL’s salary cap is set to return to the normal level in 2022. According to NFL.com, the cap is expected to climb back up to a maximum of $208.2 million, which was agreed upon by the NFL and the NFLPA in May. It is expected that the official number will be announced during the NFL’s annual labor seminar.
It was estimated if not for the pandemic the 2021 salary cap would have been at the $208.2 million number expected to be seen in 2022. Instead, the salary cap this season was $182.5 million, which was a $15.2 million decrease from the 2019 cap number of $198.2 million. Although this season’s cap number faced a drastic decrease, it was still much higher than it could have been if the league and union did not agree to spread a multi-billion dollar revenue shortage due to the pandemic over several seasons. Players are in the midst of paying back what amounted to a low-interest loan that allowed them to continue getting paid their full salaries and bonuses in the 2020 season, while the agreement to set a ceiling on the cap in 2022 is going to help expedite the repayment process.
The decreased cap in 2021 tested front offices across the league, forcing them to move money from player’s contracts to later years in order to stay in compliance with the suddenly lowered salary cap. This left teams being tentative to sign free agents and players signing much shorter deals in the hope they could test free agency again when the economy recovered. The teams that stayed away from spending this past off-season will likely be big spenders this upcoming off-season due to the anticipated $25.7 million jump in salary cap from 2021 to 2022.
Prior to the pandemic, the salary cap was steadily growing from year to year. From 2013 to 2020 the cap had been growing at a pace of $10.74 million a year. The steady increase is what front offices had planned for prior to the pandemic, and ultimately left teams in a state of flux who were closer to the $182.5 million that the cap ended up being in 2021. Luckily, no NFL games have been cancelled this season, stadium capacity is close to full, new TV deals were finalized, the regular season expanded, the playoffs have been expanded, and the NFL is finding new streams of revenue through legalized sports gambling. It is safe to say the 2022 season should not be affected by this pandemic, and the NFL’s precautions were very effective in keeping the aftermath of the pandemic limited to just the 2020 and 2021 seasons. Players and front offices are finally beginning to feel relief and normalcy in their purview.