King Kaufman's Sports Daily

NFL practice games: Everybody whines about them, but nobody does anything about them.


Salon Staff
August 22, 2006 8:00PM (UTC)

This is the time of year when people whine about the length of the NFL exhibition season. It happens every year, and sooner or later, everybody who doesn't own an NFL team does it. I've done it.

It usually comes up after some significant player gets hurt. That would be Washington running back Clinton Portis this year, so far, but it's always somebody. Thirty-two teams playing four or five games each, even meaningless, boring, thoroughly unentertaining rip-offs of the fan base, and someone's bound to get hurt.

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Here's the thing about shortening the preseason: The only people in the NFL universe who would benefit would be the fans.

In other words, Bill Parcells and Janet Jackson will sing a halftime duet in their skivvies at the Super Bowl before it happens.

Owners love exhibition games because they're able to charge regular-season prices for them while not paying the players their regular salaries. The players get a preseason stipend that works out to about $1,300 a week when there's a game, which isn't bad money -- it's $67,600 a year if that's your weekly wage -- but it's about 2 percent of an average NFL weekly paycheck.

Coaches love exhibition games because they get to play coach, luxuriating in a full month of player-evaluation onanism. In other words, figuring out which of about seven guys are going to take the last three roster spots.

Players -- they hate exhibition games. Or at least the ones who come to camp with jobs hate them. Marginal guys like having the chance to showcase themselves as they fight for jobs.

But the regulars don't like risking injury in meaningless games for chump pay, and they really don't like a month and change of training camp, a schedule designed to get the fat plumbers who used to populate the NFL into playing shape.

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It's just a pain for today's athletes, who are always in shape and just need a couple of weeks to get back into the swing of football. College players, after all, manage without exhibition games, usually a scrimmage or two.

On the other hand, for most college football powers, about three-quarters of the regular season is exhibition games.

But even though players whine about exhibition games -- Clinton Portis, arm in a sling, has been known to do so in recent weeks -- they aren't likely to go for eliminating them any more than the owners or coaches, because they get a share of the revenue exhibition games produce.

Lose two exhibition games and the salary cap would come down. Even if two regular-season games were added, which would probably result in a net gain in revenue, players' per-game salary would drop. They'd be getting the same pay for 18 real games and two token appearances that they're getting now for 16 real games and four token appearances.

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So fans are left holding the bag in the form of regular-season prices for meaningless crud. The only way it's ever going to change is if NFL fans start acting like customers and letting the company know that the product in August is not worth the price.

Season-ticket holders have no choice but buying the full-price tickets to exhibition games, but they can make a statement by not showing up, as some do, though not enough. Teams make money on parking and concessions, and if they take a big enough hit there, they might have to reconsider the full pricing on tickets.

Season-ticket holders are also presumably valued customers, at least in those cities where there isn't a 50-year waiting list. A letter-writing campaign might have some minimal impact. And I don't mean letters to the team as much as letters to the editor.

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At some point, enough unhappy customers might actually turn the NFL's scandalous exhibition-season rip-off into a real public-relations problem, as opposed to the imaginary P.R. problems the NFL's always fighting with its weird fines for hosiery and celebration violations.

But I realize I'm talking pie in the sky here. There doesn't seem to be a limit to the prices NFL fans will pay or the amount of crap they'll put up with after having paid. So, OK. Good for you, NFL fans. Enjoy the next 12 weeks of the exhibition season, or whatever it is.

I studiously avoid practice games, but I did tune in to the New Orleans Saints/Dallas Cowboys game Monday night because I wanted to give a short listen to the new ESPN announcing team, Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser.

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I figure it's not really fair to review their work until the real games start, but I thought it might be helpful for me to get a little preview. So I turned on the game. I felt bad about it, but I comforted myself with the fact that I was doing my duty as a hardworking employee.

I was so comforted that before anybody could say anything worthwhile, infuriating or in between, I had done my duty as a citizen and customer.

I fell asleep.

Previous column: Marion Jones' positive drug test

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