You've heard this one: "The check is in the mail."
That's the word around the National Football League these days as ticket offices grope with the problem of refunding money for most of the tickets they sold for two weeks of strike games.
The NFL Management Council told the 28 clubs how to handle the problem in this directive issued Sept. 22, the day the players walked out:
"All ticket-holders desiring refunds for those games may obtain them by personally surrendering their tickets at designated refund locations by the prior Tuesday. Season ticket-holders may waive a refund and instead receive credit toward 1988 season. There will be no loss of seat priority for a season ticket-holder to apply for a refund or credit."
Generally, the clubs have tried to be more accommodating to their customers than the Management Council would like them to be, but in most cases, fans are finding that it is a good deal more difficult to get refunds than it was to buy the tickets in the first place.
The Management Council, for instance, designated Tuesday of each week during the strike as the deadline for requesting refunds.
That not only gave the ticket- holders little time to get their money back but forced them to decide before they knew who would be playing five days later. What if the strike ended and their seats had been resold? At first, the striking players had until Friday to report, although that was moved up to Wednesday this past week.
Some clubs didn't think the Tuesday deadline was fair and extended it. Even so, most clubs have set down rigid time frames for returning tickets, most are not giving cash refunds, most are not giving refunds at all of the places where tickets are sold, many are waiting to send out refund checks, and one, Buffalo, was doing no walk-up refunding, handling the entire business by mail.
"No one likes the situation," said Peter Ruocco, a Management Council spokesman. "We never said it's the perfect solution. It all comes down to logistics, as far as where you have to go. Some (fans) go to the stadiums. Some have outlets."
Some also are trying harder than others to serve their fans. When several clubs extended the deadline on their own, for instance, the Minnesota Vikings allowed refunds all the way to Saturday before last week's home game against Green Bay, which drew only 13,911 after 32,000 refunds.
Viking ticket manager Harry Randolph said: "After all, it's the fans who are getting hurt most by this. We wanted to make it as easy for them as possible. My people have been working themselves to death, but it's worth the effort. There might be a semblance of good will when this is over."
This week, the New England Patriots went to Friday at 5 p.m. They had 34,780 refunds last week and ticket manager Frank Napoli wouldn't estimate how many they would have today, except to say that refunds were running significantly less than last week.
The Philadelphia Eagles were so swamped with refund requests for last week's game against the Chicago Bears, which drew a league low of 4,074 spectators, that they extended the deadline to Monday, Oct. 12--eight days after the game.
Ticket manager Leo Carlin wouldn't estimate how many refunds there will be in the final count. "The last time I did that, it backfired in my face," he said. "But it's been terrible."
Philadelphia newspapers were estimating the total at 45,000 and counting.
The New York Giants had only 16,471 fans for last Monday night's game against the 49ers and were still busy at week's end refunding money for an estimated 45,000 tickets which had been sold. One hang-up was that all those certified letters containing tickets had to be signed for.
NFL clubs long have been accustomed to collecting interest on their season ticket-holders' money by requiring spring payment for fall games. The San Diego Chargers, however, sort of reversed the procedure when they mailed refund checks to all of their season ticket-holders--without being asked--as soon as they learned their Sept. 27 game with Seattle had been canceled.
"Our inclination was to get the money back to the people in the quickest, simplest way," ticket manager Joe Scott said.
The Chargers were pleasantly surprised when some ticket-holders mailed the checks back, requesting instead a credit on next year's tickets, which is everybody's option around the league.
On the other hand, the Washington Redskins won't give any money back until the strike or the season ends.
"We want to send one check for the entire amount," said a ticket office employee who refused to give his name. "We'll just keep a tab on how much we owe 'em. It's a lot easier than sending checks every week and taking a chance on one getting lost in the mail.
"When the strike's over, it's just a matter of how long it takes the computer to generate the checks."
Besides, the Redskins will be getting the interest from that money. Apparently, old habits die hard.