The Unkillable NFL Preseason

Los Angeles Rams quarterback Jared Goff signs autographs for fans after practice in Irvine, Calif., Aug 4, 2019. (Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports via Reuters)
Economics explains why football fans spend a few weeks paying to watch backups play.

The good news for professional-football fans is that August is here, the teams are back in training camp, and the NFL season starts for real next month. The bad news is you have to sit through at least four weeks of boring, sloppy, no-stakes, no-consequence preseason games until then.

Baseball fans don’t complain much about spring training; a lot of them turn it into a late-winter getaway to Florida or Arizona. NBA and NHL fans don’t have terribly strong opinions about their preseason practice games.

But sports-talk hosts and callers fume that the National Football League has all teams play at least four meaningless games, in which the coaches don’t really care who wins and most of the biggest names play sparingly if at all. Coaches and veteran players admit they don’t really need four games to get ready for the regular season, and in the fourth game, most teams play only backups and rookies and guys about to get released. The motley assortment of rookies and soon-to-be-cut journeymen stumble around the field, fumbling, jumping offside, dropping passes, missing blocks, running the wrong route, and forgetting that only eleven men are supposed to be on the field at one time. God help you if you’ve ever bet money on preseason football; you’re more invested in a team winning the game than the coaching staff is. The coaches just want to get through 60 minutes of “professional play” without any player getting injured and focus their attention on their opponents in the first week of the regular season.

So why does the league have a five-week, four-or-five-game preseason schedule?

If you’ve ever attended an NFL preseason game, the answer is clear. Every team requires its season-ticket holders to purchase tickets at full price for two exhibition games as a required part of a package for regular-season tickets. Season-ticket holders have the choice of paying and not attending, paying and attending, or attempting to sell the tickets to somebody else to recoup at least a fraction of their cost. If you look on StubHub or other ticket-brokering websites, you can usually find tickets in the high-up nosebleed section for ten to 20 bucks — and sometimes even less.

For the fans in attendance, everything off the field is indistinguishable from a regular-season game. The parking fees are usually the same. The hot-dog and beer prices are the same. The sales of apparel and other souvenirs are usually brisk. Some local singer gets the thrill of singing the national anthem for a huge crowd. The cheerleaders, the color guard, the stadium announcer, the television cameras — everything outside the guys in the team uniforms works the same as it does when the games count.

And for what it’s worth, most fans have a fun, if somewhat coerced, good time. They’ve been forced to buy the tickets, so they try to turn the evening into a party. Fans are conditioned to cheer when their team scores, even when it’s the seventh-round draft pick hoping to earn a spot on the practice squad completing a pass to a guy who’s going to get cut next week, going up against guys of similar talent level.

If you eliminate one or more of those preseason games, none of those sales occur. The guy who makes a little extra money going up and down the stairs in the upper deck yelling “Beer here!” doesn’t get to do his gig. The gal who restocks that hideous neon-orange cheese that they sell with the nachos, the ushers, the security guards, the ride-sharing drivers in the neighborhood — none of those folks are making fortunes, but the night puts a little extra dough in their pockets. They would be fine with a meaningless preseason game every weekend if it could be arranged.

The television audience for NFL preseason games is sliding a bit, but that still adds up to 5.33 million viewers for NBC last Thursday night, the most-watched prime-time network show of the evening. The networks will gladly broadcast those sloppy meaningless games, because enough football fans are starved enough for their sport to watch — or maybe it’s just that nothing better is on. August is traditionally a slow period for television ratings, anyway. The new fall television season is still a couple weeks away, and lots of families are on vacation. Watching a bunch of backups play no-stakes football in prime time is an oddly fitting entertainment option for those lazy closing nights of summer.

If you’re a company that needs to advertise your product, would you rather run commercials during preseason football or during other summer programming such as A Random Group of Celebrities Play Games Like Charades or Reality-Show Contestants Eat Worms or The Sitcom That Wasn’t Good Enough for the Fall Schedule?

So sure, it’s greedy owners and greedy television networks who want the current preseason length. But a portion of the revenue from those preseason games also goes to everyone who works in the stadium and in the broadcast booth and the guys hawking T-shirts outside in the parking lots. If the stadium is like Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte or Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, close to a downtown area, the evening influx of fans probably helps local restaurants and bars.

The NFL could shorten the preseason to just two or three games. Players, coaches, and fans would approve the move. Those who are currently stuck paying for those tickets would cheer. But the shorter preseason would be asking lots of people who currently enjoy the economic domino effect to give up a bit of their bottom line.

Paying full ticket prices for preseason games is an irritating expense for season-ticket holders, but it’s not enough of an irritant for them to give up their guaranteed seats for the eight home games in the fall and early winter. On the balance sheet, a preseason game looks more like a regular-season game than no game at all. And the current preseason format probably won’t change much at all until that’s reversed.


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