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NFL needs to look at preseason experience, make it fan friendly

No violence last weekend at Candlestick Park.

No reported shootings or stabbings or savage beatings.

And something else was missing at the 49ers">49ers preseason game against Houston: crowds.

Crowd control and security is relatively easy when fans are scattered across vast swaths of empty seats.

In the wake of the violence that took place at the Raiders-49ers preseason game on Aug. 20 there has been outrage, concern and new policies instituted: such as expanded police presence and restrictions on tailgating at Candlestick.

The 49ers have asked the league to suspend their preseason series with the neighboring Raiders, implying that football fans in silver and black and those in red and gold simply can't mix in a peaceful manner.

There's been a lot of reaction. But what there also needs to be is a re-examination of the preseason concept.

Niners president Jed York indicated that the real problem was preseason games, which season-ticket holders don't care about, thereby creating a crowd that has little vested interest in the fan experience.

York took that line of reasoning too far with a tone-deaf observation that the 18-game schedule that the owners were pining for in CBA negotiations would help solve the problem. That flawed reasoning -- that adding extra real games, and all the issues that would entail, would somehow make the remaining worthless games somehow more worthwhile and make the uncomfortable setting vanish -- didn't help the discussion.

The worthless games remain worthless, whether there are two or four. The league acknowledges that there's a lack of interest. And while it's difficult to draw a direct parallel between meaningless preseason games and fan violence as the 2011 preseason winds down, it's time for the NFL to re-examine its greedy, flawed policy. Forcing season-ticket holders to pay full fare, plus parking, for games they don't want is a bad idea.

Jeffrey Miller, the NFL head of security, came to the Bay Area last weekend to attend both the 49ers and Raiders preseason games. He confirmed that preseason games are part of the problem.

"Preseason games across the league generally don't have the same fan base as the regular season," Miller said. "Whether or not that's problematic depends on the venue. Sometimes it's not the same fans and there are no problems. Sometimes there are big problems as we saw last week."

In some venues -- Lambeau Field, Jerry Jones' Pleasure Palace -- there are enough fans that can't get into a regular season game, or enough fans that simply can't get enough football that the preseason games aren't an embarrassment.

But in other markets, often the ones where the customers aren't clamoring for either the product or the venue, preseason games are a joke. Because tickets sold remains the attendance measure -- and the NFL forces those tickets to be sold -- the numbers don't tell the story. But the huge chunks of empty seats visible on televised games or in person don't lie.

In the wake of the Candlestick violence, the 49ers said they would hold season-ticket holders accountable for any trouble that may stem from people in their seats. Miller confirmed that such a policy is part of the NFL's best practices code for fan conduct.

"It's accountability," he said. "If a season-ticket holder gives or sells their tickets to someone else and that person creates a problem or issue, what many clubs do is go back and look at that. What was the nature of the offense? I know there have been clubs that have actually pulled season tickets if there was a real problem."

So the NFL forces Joe Ticketbuyer to buy tickets to two games he has zero interest in attending but has to purchase as part of his season ticket package. Hey, that's capitalism at work.

But if Joe T. then tries to embrace the capitalist ideal and recoup some of his loss by selling his tickets online, or get a tax write-off by donating them to a youth group, then suddenly he's a potential criminal accomplice?

Rather than put the onus on the season-ticket holders -- who should be the league's most precious commodity -- the NFL needs to do a better job of making the preseason experience worthwhile in every market.

Turn the games into family friendly events, with discounted kids tickets, free hot dogs and product giveaways. If the majority of those in attendance are kids, it will cut down on the violence, drinking and hostile atmosphere. Or turn one of the games into a fantasy football event -- hand out fantasy football draft sheets, hold contests for the best league name. Offer deeply discounted tickets to colleges and high schools and youth football leagues.

Somehow connect with the people who care about football but are shut out from the regular season. Connect with the future fan base. The NFL needs to find a way to make the preseason games a meaningful experience and marketing tool, rather than a take it or leave it proposition.

It won't solve the violence or threatening atmosphere: in some venues that exists during the regular season. But the wealthy NFL should find a way to hold a preseason without making the average fan feel extorted. It would be a measure of goodwill.

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