The Labor Day weekend is a great one for baseball, and so there were more than 600,000 people screaming their heads off watching pro football exhibitions. Every year pro football gets bigger and bigger, but what has happened this year ranks as a phenomenon—or aberration or mania. Everywhere but in Baltimore (and Memphis), Americans are going absolutely bonkers over meaningless National Football League exhibition games. As of last week these contests, in a manner of speaking, had drawn over three million fans, all of them paying top dollar for what Commissioner Pete Rozelle, master salesman and slick semanticist (his initials and approach are P.R.), has decreed to be "preseason games."
Just a few years ago the Eagles and the Lions played before 19,000 in a Philadelphia exhibition. Last month the Eagles met the Bills, and the traffic jam was so horrendous that even the mayor couldn't get to the game on time. When the Patriots, who used to have trouble filling Fenway Park (37,216 capacity), opened their new stadium in Foxboro, Mass. on Aug. 15, 60,000 fans stormed the gates, and cars were backed up to the Rhode Island state line. Yet this is small stuff. When the Lions played the Colts in Ann Arbor—the first pro game at the University of Michigan—almost 92,000 people showed up. Isn't anybody home watching The Interns?
And what's going on? The answer is that a number of elements—from fan hunger to owner avarice—have come together at the same time. According to a survey by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED correspondents, the boom in exhibition football is attributable to the following:
•Pro football, with its swiftness, violence and "great halftime shows," is immensely popular, and the public appetite, stimulated by TV and the press, shows no signs of satiety. Kim Hamman, a Denver secretary and Bronco fan, says, "I like the game so much that I would pay just as much to see exhibitions as regular-season games." Laddie Montague, a lawyer whose firm is representing one Angelo Coniglio of Buffalo in his antitrust action against the Bills, the NFL and Rozelle, exclaims, "It's a great game, a wonderful sport!"
•There are only 14 regular-season games per team in pro football, a short season compared with baseball's 162 and pro basketball's 82. Each game is an event, and seven exhibitions represent an increase of 50% in the opportunities fans have to see their teams in action. Most of the 26 NFL teams package their home exhibitions with their regular home schedule, and the vast majority of season ticket buyers are willing to go along with this scheme. Even ticket holders who do not care for exhibitions have a use for them. As Alfred Selix, owner of a San Francisco formalwear store, says, "We usually give our exhibition tickets to employees or customers."
•More than any other professional sport, football is able to exploit the publicity heaped upon its rookies by its most obliging farm system—the colleges and universities. When Jim Plunkett, Heisman Trophy winner and Rose Bowl hero, came in to quarterback the Patriots in the second half of their exhibition against the Giants, he received an ovation usually accorded only to Kennedys in New England. An unpublicized newcomer need make just one spectacular play to become a conversation piece. Two years ago Mike Battle of the Jets, who has done little since, became an instant hero with the hurdling punt return he made against the Giants in an exhibition. Lou Saban, the Bronco general manager and coach, puts it this way: "The fans are just as interested in finding out what kind of talent we have as the coaches are. They're inquisitive. Fans want to be coaches. They would like to see who they would cut or keep and compare their own notes with the coaches. There's a certain amount of mystery involved in it for them."
•The merging of the NFL and AFL has spurred attendance, particularly in AFL cities. This is best exemplified in Miami, where the Dolphins have perhaps the greatest exhibition attendance in all football, even though ticket prices have jumped four times since 1966. The Dolphins charge from $4 to $10 for a ticket to an exhibition, and a season ticket buyer is tied into 11 home games (four exhibition and seven regular). A fan who wants a pair of $7 season tickets has to pay $154 in advance, plus a 50¢ mailing charge. Despite the price, the Dolphins have 48,000 season ticket holders, and in four preseason home games they have averaged 61,500 fans.
By comparison, when they made their AFL debut in 1966, the Dolphins had to seek such exhibition hideouts as Jacksonville (11,000 vs. the Jets in 1966) and Akron (7,000 vs. the Broncos in 1967). But starting in 1967, when merged exhibitions first took place, the Dolphins had larger crowds for preseason games against NFL teams than for regular-season games against AFL opposition.
The rise of the preseason phenomenon is a study in both public acceptance and passiveness. Years ago the games were billed as practice scrimmages, and aside from a few fanatics no one showed up. Then they became exhibitions, and next preseason games. But the truth will out. After last weekend's Giant-Brown contest, an announcer on New York's WNEW said, "This preseason exhibition game was brought to you by...."
There is only one reason for a six-or seven-game exhibition schedule: money for the owners. "The costs of operations for a pro football franchise have skyrocketed the last few years," says Jack Steadman, executive vice-president and general manager of the Chiefs. "Player salaries, for example, have quadrupled since the early '60s. Without a strong preseason schedule, it would be virtually impossible to operate successfully from a financial standpoint." Says Art Modell, owner of the Browns and inventor of the annual exhibition doubleheader, "From an economic standpoint, the preseason games are an absolute must."
The owners, who of course will not open their books to substantiate these claims, are able to get an edge because players do not get paid until the start of the regular season. The most any player can get for an exhibition game, even if he is a star performing before 92,000 fans, is $330, and then he has to be a five-year veteran. One owner, who requested anonymity, said he expected $700,000 in net revenues from the current exhibition season, and he added that a few teams, most notably the Jets, would make more than $1 million.
While the owners have been making money, player after player has been racked up. Joe Namath of the Jets is out with another knee injury; Joe Moore, the Bears' No. 1 draft pick, is encased in plaster; Lance Alworth of Dallas has fractured ribs; Chip Meyer, Cincinnati's top receiver, broke both arms. The list is endless. Strangely enough, a good many coaches shrug off injuries. "There's no way you can play this game if you worry about injuries," says Hank Stram of the Chiefs, and Saban of the Broncos says that if exhibitions were not played, the players would have to scrimmage more, doubling the chances for injury within the squad—a dubious tenet. As Norm Van Brocklin of the Falcons says, "If you do too much scrimmaging in practice, you find people getting into the brother-in-law act—not hitting anyone." In accordance with the new line that the exhibition season is the time to start building a winner, most coaches drive the players hard. According to Ram Quarterback Roman Gabriel, George Allen, now coaching the Redskins, "had us play exhibitions like they were all Super Bowl tests."
Many coaches apparently agree with Allen, but there are prominent exceptions, such as Weeb Ewbank of the Jets (the only exhibition he cares about is the one against the Giants, which he classifies as a game for "the bragging rights to New York"), John Madden of the Raiders ("We want to experiment—we are not going to allow the scoreboard to affect our plans") and Tommy Prothro of the Rams. Their attitude does not sit well with some hard-liners. As Allen says, "Most teams put out and the fans get their money's worth. A team here and there will make a farce of it."
Almost all coaches and players questioned by SPORTS ILLUSTRATED agreed that the current exhibition schedule is not necessary to get a team into shape. But none of the coaches and players argued that exhibitions were not necessary. "The tempo of a game is greater than what you establish in practice," says Coach Bob Hollway of the Cardinals. "The pressure situations are different. In a game you make a mistake, and it's a game-winning error. It's like a doctor operating on a cat and then on a human. There's a big difference." The great majority of the players and some of the coaches feel that the exhibition schedule should be cut back to three or four games, at least one of them to be played by rookies alone, while two games should be added to the regular schedule.
"Personally, I'd like to see us play three and tee it up," says Van Brocklin. "And what I'd also like to see is the league set up the exhibition [tsk, tsk] schedule and play the games only in the league cities. That would get rid of some of these tank towns we play in." The Dutchman is talking about cities like Memphis, where the Falcons drew 22,474 against the Broncos.
Tackle Merlin Olsen of the Rams agrees: "We need a couple of tune-ups, but not any six or seven. If we're going to play, I think we should just increase the regular schedule so they count. It doesn't make much sense to get banged up in games that don't count."
"They say they need a chance to look at the new guys, and I won't dispute that," says Linebacker Dave Robinson of the Packers. "But they don't use the games that way. They work the old guys to death, they don't look at everybody. A lot of veterans come into the exhibition season unsigned, and they have to be very careful not to get hurt. If they'd arrange it, say, so that a starter wouldn't be in more than two or three series in the last exhibition, it'd be a lot better. Four games would be perfect, five would be O.K., but six is too many, at least the way they use them now."
"It's football, the same kind we play in December," says Quarterback Pete Liske of the Eagles, who tore a knee ligament in an exhibition. "But we don't get December pay. I get this [his injured knee], maybe ruin the season for me, and they get this [running his thumb across his fingers to signify money]."
This is not the kind of talk Rozelle likes to hear. A couple of years ago he silenced Joe Schmidt, the coach of the Lions, for saying three exhibitions were sufficient to get a team ready.
There have been isolated reactions against the exhibition bonanza. In Baltimore the Colts, who have sold 50,246 season tickets for each of the past six years, have drawn exhibition crowds of 13,000, 16,000 and 16,200, the last against their Super Bowl opponents, the Dallas Cowboys. Baltimore fans suspect that Owner Carroll Rosenbloom and his son Steve, the president of the club, are trying to bilk them at exhibition games, mostly because John Steadman, sports editor of the News American, has attacked the Rosenblooms in column after column. Steadman has a large following, and the curious thing is that he considers himself a fanatic Colt fan. He has never missed a regular-season game; indeed, he has even been known to blow a bugle charge from the press box.
Steadman's disgruntlement may be catching. William Gildea of the Washington Post recently praised Colt fans for their "good taste" in skipping home exhibitions, and then lambasted the Redskins and all other NFL teams for stocking training camps with players "who can't possibly make the club." These players, Gildea charged, are "fodder needed to stretch the training period nine or 10 weeks so that so many exhibitions can be played."
And up in Buffalo Angelo Coniglio has filed suit against the Bills, the NFL and Rozelle for forcing fans to buy tie-ins of exhibition and regular-season tickets. As Coniglio and his lawyers see it, teams that indulge in such practices are guilty under the Sherman Antitrust Act because fans are compelled to purchase an inferior product (exhibition game tickets) in order to get a superior one (regular-season tickets).
Meanwhile, consider the plight of the bookmakers. For years bookies have tried to avoid handling exhibition games. Uncertainty about rookies and new plays makes a bookie hesitant. Who knows what experiment Weeb Ewbank is going to try with his team in Portland, Ore., at one in the morning Jersey City time? Now, with more coaches aiming to win flat out, now that it is possible to get a good line on a team that has played a few games, now that "television has made the barroom customers anxious, the bookies are starting to loosen up a little. In Las Vegas, where betting on sports is legal, the action is up. Yet, as Lem Banker, who ran three sports books before becoming oddsmaker-columnist for the Vegas Review-Journal, says, "All bookies have their idiosyncrasies and superstitions. I have a calico cat that I believe is a symbol of good luck. I was watching the exhibition game between Miami and Detroit the other night and had made a big play on Miami. My cat always sits in my lap when I watch the game in my den. Miami went ahead 14-0, and then my cat started crying. I had to take her outside. Then Detroit moved in front. I got my cat and put her on my lap. Miami won the game, and I won a big one."
Given the players' growing restiveness about the glut of exhibitions, Pete Rozelle may want to borrow that Las Vegas calico.