The NFL's Preseason Farce

The fans, players, and coaches all hate exhibition games—but the owners keep the ritual alive.

barra_preseason_post.jpg
Reuters

Pro football is filet mignon, Sean Connery as James Bond, a trip to Hawaii. Preseason pro football is tofu burgers, Roger Moore as James Bond, the Jersey shore.

The press hates preseason football. The fans hate it, though they'll watch it if there's nothing else on. Players hate it because they could are at risk for career-ending injuries in meaningless games. Even gamblers hate preseason football; with so many rookies and scrubs shuttled in and out of lineups, no one can make realistic point spreads.

Preseason football exists for one reason: The owners want it. They want it because they don't have to share the revenues with the players, whose salaries do not kick in until the regular season starts and are only paid training camp rates for the exhibition games. The players are there pretty much gratis.

Many have suggested that a more sensible approach than the current system would simply be to take the four weeks of preseason football and let the games count as part of the regular season. During the 2011 NFL lockout, one of the owners' first demands was for an 18-game regular season, of course without additional compensation for the players, but that demand was eventually dropped. The owners are perfectly happy to keep all the profit from 64 meaningless preseason games rather than split the far bigger bucks from 64 real games.

If you wonder who did that math for the team executives, remember that little more than 60 years ago a number of team owners still thought that putting football games on TV would cost them money by infringing on ticket sales. Today, TV revenue outstrips revenue from ticket sales, parking, concessions, and souvenir sales by about 12 to 1.

The late great San Francisco Forty-Niners coach Bill Walsh once explained to me why the preseason was his least favorite part of the year.

"There's only one rationale for playing football games before the season begins, and that's to prepare the players for the coach's schemes and to show the coaches what new players can do in those schemes. But you really don't do that. You're so afraid of your most valuable players being injured that you end up shuffling them in and out of the lineup as fast as you can. So, often you end up starting the season as ignorant about new players, new formations, and new plays as you were the first day of training camp."

Stated another way, pro football's preseason is the opposite of baseball's spring training. The purpose of spring training is for veterans to bounce back from old injuries and for new players to work their way into the lineups by showing their stuff. In pro football, it's the opposite. Coaches are afraid of tipping their hand on new strategies and new players before the games count, while veterans don't play at full throttle for fear of injury and rookies can see their careers go up in smoke with one hit. (The current NFL injury report lists over 200 players out or questionable with everything from concussions to torn knees to broken bones..)

Presented by

Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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