The NFL's salary cap could hit a record high of more than $220 million per club in 2023.
But unknowns regarding revenue from new TV deals and the payouts of player benefits deferred during the COVID-19 pandemic leave the final cap number clouded a little more than three months from the start of the league year and free agency next March, per sources.
Owners and other team executives are scheduled to gather Dec. 13 and 14 outside Dallas for the Winter League Meeting and labor seminar, where an estimate on the cap is traditionally provided to clubs for budgeting purposes before the NFL and NFL Players Association negotiate the final number in late February or early March.
One source familiar with the process predicted the normal calculation of projected revenues would pin the 2023 cap number at "well above 220 (million)." But the NFL has not yet made its cap projection, sources say, and both the league and union have decisions to make that will impact the final math.
On the revenue side, lucrative new TV deals kick in in 2023. But the NFL has not yet selected a new home for NFL Sunday Ticket, which has belonged to DirecTV since 1994. The current agreement expires after the 2022 season. Under the 2020 collective bargaining agreement, the salary cap and benefits are tied in part to increases of those TV deals, with a "media kicker" increasing players' share of projected revenue from 48% up to as much as 48.8% -- a potential nine-figure swing. So, until the NFL Sunday Ticket deal is done, it's hard to say definitively where the revenue projection will land and what piece of it will go to players. (The CBA is a revenue-sharing deal in which the cap is based on players' share, divided into salary and benefits.)
On the cost side, the NFLPA still owes players benefits -- such as performance-based pay, Pro Bowl pay and tuition assistance -- that were suspended during COVID-19 to help buoy the salary cap. An agreement between the league and union calls for those benefits to be repaid sometime after 2023. If the revenue projection is high enough, it could make sense to pay them out in full next year, which would smooth out the anticipated rise in cap, but also directly impact this year's free agency class. If the revenue projection is lower, the union could pay out the benefits over multiple years.
This year’s record cap of $208.2 million was the maximum agreed to by the NFL and NFLPA in May 2021 to expedite repayment of what amounted to a low-interest loan that allowed players to continue making full salaries in 2020 despite empty stadiums. The cap had been $198.2 million in 2020 before dropping to $182.5 million in 2021 as part of that process. From 2013 to 2020, the cap had been growing at a pace of $10.74 million a year. So, a cap in the $220 million range next season would mark a return to that growth rate.
Wherever the 2023 cap lands, it should set another record, with additional growth expected in 2024 and beyond as revenue continues to rise.
The free-agent negotiating period opens at noon ET on Monday, March 13, and the 2023 league year at 4 p.m. ET on Wednesday, March 15.