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BORES OF SUMMER : NFL Exhibition Games Seem Primarily for Making Money and Testing Markets

August 13, 1987|GENE WOJCIECHOWSKI | Times Staff Writer

The players called it the Woody Hayes Bowl, an NFL exhibition game contrived to satisfy the supposedly insatiable thirst Ohio fans had for their Cincinnati Bengals and Cleveland Browns. As if two regular-season games between the teams weren't enough.

Bob Trumpy, a Bengal tight end in those days, was there. Then again, he had to be. But to anyone else who wandered into Ohio Stadium as the Columbus summer heat baked all living things, Trumpy sends his belated condolences.

These were games that not even the old man himself could enjoy. This was exhibition football at its worst: Two teams, rivals to begin with, knocking each other senseless for no apparent reason.

"That was awful ," said Trumpy, now a network football commentator and Cincinnati talk-show host.

And here's why: Neither team ran more than a handful of plays or revealed more than the most basic of defenses. Not with the regular season weeks away. It was Dick and Jane football.

"After the first quarter, we'd know their three plays and three formations, and they'd know ours," Trumpy said. "Then we'd beat the living . . . out of each other for the last three quarters."

Innocent times were these. Teams played six exhibition games. Coaches were given the chance to develop rookies and free-agent prospects. Management had yet to devise new ways to trap the season-ticket holder. And winning wasn't vital, performance was.

"There used to be the day when the coach said preseason games weren't important and selling tickets wasn't important," said Dick Vermeil, former coach of the Philadelphia Eagles. "You wanted to look respectable during preseason."

In short, the fans knew what they were getting.

Look at it now. First, instead of calling them exhibitions, the NFL calls them preseason games. Sounds better. More important, more wholesome, more professional.

Also, a four-game exhibition schedule, instituted in 1978, is standard now. This usually leaves coaches with a choice: Work with inexperienced players and emphasize improvement, or play exclusively for exhibition game victories.

"Tom (Landry) wants to win, but he also wants to develop the younger player," said Gil Brandt, Dallas Cowboy vice president in charge of personnel. "You can't do both."

As for tickets, that's easy. With few exceptions, your favorite NFL franchise will make you pay for nearly meaningless, diluted exhibition games as part of a season package. Protests are useless.

And why is it that Tempe, Ariz.; Memphis, Tenn., and Jacksonville, Fla., will have exhibition games this season, but Buffalo, home of the Bills, won't?

Simple. A new competition, encouraged by the NFL, now exists among cities interested in getting expansion franchises. Most likely, the city that impresses NFL bookkeepers will receive first consideration. Commissioner Pete Rozelle and at least one NFL owner have said as much.

Money, as usual, has become the starting point for the exhibition season. Owners want to increase profits, which makes sense. It's a business, after all. The methods, however, are questionable.

Of the 28 NFL clubs, 20 require season ticket-holders to buy exhibition game packages, too.

In Pittsburgh, where the Steelers have a nine-year waiting list for season tickets, the philosophy was explained as such: "You have no choice. It's included in the package."

So fans, eager to get or keep their precious seats, pay the extra freight the Steelers charge for the exhibition games.

Similar situations exist in San Francisco, which has 20,000 on its waiting list; Seattle, about 9,000, and Denver, 17,000. There are no exceptions. Demand is so high, that the 49ers, Seahawks and Broncos could charge for halftime shows and probably receive few complaints. Such is the mania.

Other teams--the Raiders, Rams, Kansas City Chiefs--allow fans who don't want the exhibition package to buy season tickets only after the conclusion of home exhibition games. The selling point is this: Buy the entire package rather than risk waiting and getting a less desirable view.

The New York Giants and New York Jets adhere to the same policy, except that their waiting lists vary between 20,000 for the Giants and 10 years for the Jets.

Meanwhile, the Green Bay Packers and Washington Redskins, with their waiting lists of 10,000 and 17,600 fans, respectively, allow for the purchase of individual exhibition games.

According to the National Football League Players Assn., NFL teams earned an average of about $1.3 million from last year's exhibition schedule. In 1985, the figure was about $1.24 million, said the NFLPA.

Revenue is earned through local television contracts, worth an average of about $100,000 for each game, by NFLPA accounts, plus radio contracts, gate receipts, possible concessions and luxury box arrangements. Team costs include player per diems, about $348,000, and room and board, about $200,000.

"It's certainly not a loss leader for them," said an NFLPA official of the exhibition season.

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