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."