The National Football League preseason refers to the period each year during which NFL teams play several not-for-the-record exhibition games before the actual "championship" or "regular" season starts. Beginning with the featured Pro Football Hall of Fame game in early August, five weekends of exhibition games are currently played in the NFL. The start of the preseason is intrinsically tied to the last week of training camp.
Each summer has most NFL teams playing four exhibition games (referred to by the NFL as "preseason games;" the league discourages the use of the term "exhibition game") from early August through early September. The Hall of Fame game is played first in front of a national television audience, the only game on the first weekend. It does not count toward the normal allotment of four games, therefore the two teams playing in that contest (usually one from the American Football Conference and one from the National Football Conference) each play a total of five exhibition games.
The games are useful for new players who are not used to playing in front of very large crowds. Management often uses the games to evaluate newly signed players. Veteran players will generally play only for about a quarter of each game (or less) in order to avoid injury. Thus, first-stringers' playing time is kept brief in the exhibition season, and in fact players are not paid their regular salaries for exhibitions, but the same per diem which they receive for training camp. The exhibition game tickets, however, are usually the same price as regular-season games. Several lawsuits, by individual fans or by class action, have been brought against specific teams or the entire NFL over the practice of requiring season-ticket holders to purchase exhibition games. To date, none of these suits has been successful.
Exhibition games have been played in Professional Football since the 1920s. In the early years of the sport, teams often "barnstormed", and played squads from leagues outside their own, or against local college teams or other amateur groups, charging fans whatever the traffic would bear. These games might be played before, during or after the teams' regular seasons. The quality of the sport during this period was such that there was not much to be seen different in an exhibition game or a regularly scheduled game. But the players were just as competitive, and the fans demanded their money's worth. The only restriction was a major one: all games played against league opponents were considered regular season games, meaning only games played against teams from outside the league could be considered true exhibitions (the Staley Swindle of 1921 was one notable implementation of this rule, which ended up impacting who won the championship that year). This rule was changed in 1924, which set a firm date for the end of the season and declared any games after that point to be exhibition games.
By the 1960s, teams in both the NFL and the American Football League began playing exhibition games toward the end of training camp and before the regular season, to acclimate players to game conditions. These games were priced well below the cost for regular-season games, and in some cases were "intrasquad" games, in which both offense and defense were made up of home-team players. Team owners realized modest profits from these games, because the players were still being paid only training camp per diem, so any game proceeds went strictly to management.
With the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, Professional Football was granted a Sherman Anti-Trust Act exemption, which emboldened some team owners to expand the exhibition schedule and to require season-ticket holders to pay for one, then two, then three home exhibition games if they wanted to keep their season tickets. The exhibition season then became, and remains, a large source of owner revenue that is not shared with the players. For several years through 1977, the NFL season consisted of 14 regular season games and six exhibition games, usually three at home and three away, with some played at neutral sites. Starting in 1978, the regular season was expanded to 16 games, and the exhibition season was cut from six to four games.
From 1999 to 2001, when the league consisted of an uneven 31 teams, some additional exhibition games (usually 2 or 3) were played over Hall of Fame weekend. In order to account for the uneven number of teams, each team was required to have a bye week during the exhibition season. Most teams held their bye week in Hall of Fame weekend, while the others utilized them somewhere else during the exhibition season. This practice was abandoned after the Houston Texans were added to the league in 2002, giving it an even 32 teams.
The exhibition games do not count toward any statistics, streaks, season standings or records whatsoever. For instance, the four wins incurred by the 2008 Detroit Lions in the exhibition season did not count "against them" when they went on to become the first team to lose all of their regular-season games since 1976, and the 1972 Dolphins, despite losing three exhibition games, are still considered to have played a perfect season. Similarly, Ola Kimrin's 65-yard field goal in an exhibition game is not considered the league record, despite being longer than the 63 yard mark set by Tom Dempsey and later by Jason Elam in the regular season.
Still, Professional Football is popular enough that many fans still pay full price for exhibition game tickets, which they must purchase in order to keep their regular-season seats. Many teams are sold out on a season ticket basis and have large waiting lists, with fans required to pay a one-time or annual fee for the privilege of remaining on the waiting list. A minority of teams offer promotions and discounts to fill the stands for exhibition games; an example of this is the Buffalo Bills' annual "Kids Day" promotion, where tickets, already the lowest priced in the league, are slashed to bargain-basement prices (around $10) for children under 12.
International and neutral-site games
Prior to the commencement of the International Series, the NFL had another "featured" exhibition game called the American Bowl. This matchup was a "fifth" exhibition game for the two teams involved and was (often) played on the same weekend as the Hall of Fame Game. It was played outside the United States, usually in Mexico or Japan; in the latter case, it often involved games that started at 5:00 A.M. U.S. Eastern time. The American Bowl was held from 1986 to 2005; similar international matches had occurred regularly since 1969.
In addition, teams will often play home games at stadiums on the fringes of their markets, or in markets not currently served by NFL teams. San Antonio, Texas's Alamodome hosted games in this way as did the Rogers Centre (as part of the Bills Toronto Series). The Citrus Bowl was previous a common venue for games. The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York has been mentioned as a potential site for such a game, with the host team not yet mentioned.
Television and radio
Although several exhibition games are broadcast nationally, most are broadcast by local television stations and produced by the teams themselves. Exhibition games are almost exclusively played at night due to hot summer weather, and are frequently scheduled based on local convenience (e.g. games on the west coast tend to start at 7:00 p.m. PT/10:00 p.m. ET). The league's blackout restrictions apply, although stations are allowed to play the game on a tape delay if the game does not sell out (unlike the regular season policy, when rights revert to NFL Films). Many more exhibition games fail to sell out than do regular-season games.
NFL Network airs many exhibition games on tape delay using local broadcasters' game broadcasts, in addition to a weekly live game using its own crew. When airing the local broadcasters' games, NFL Network will split the footage between each team's home market by half, with the home team having the first half and the visiting team having the second half. For instance, if the Cleveland Browns were playing an exhibition game with the Detroit Lions in Cleveland (the two often play each other in the preseason due to it being an interconference matchup plus the close proximity to Cleveland and Detroit, see below), NFL Network would air the Browns' local coverage in the first half (in this case, WKYC-TV), and then air the second half coverage from the Lions local broadcaster, WWJ-TV.
Local radio stations have conflicts with Baseball games.
With the exception of the Hall of Fame Game, which is carried by Westwood One, there is no national radio play-by-play of exhibition games. Furthermore, the games are still carried by the teams' local radio networks, but the affiliate count is reduced due to conflict with baseball and local sports as well as reduced demand because of the generally low quality of the contests. Television viewers are not required to watch exhibition games in order to later view regular-season games. Despite this, the league's subscription FieldPass still charges full price for Internet audio of these games.
Unlike the regular season, the exhibition matchups are not based on any rotating or set formula.
The NFL schedules the matchups for all of the exhibition games. Since 2002, individual teams have been allowed to negotiate their own deals to play each other during the preseason. The league allows individual teams to provide input into desired matchups and determines the matchups for any games that were not individually negotiated; however, the league sets all game dates and times. The exhibition season schedule is released in the spring, shortly before the regular season schedule is announced. The NFL has set a loose precedent of determining exhibition matchups:
- No two teams will face each other in the same exhibition season more than once. (See below)
- No NFL team will play a team outside the league. (See below)
- Teams in the same division will not play one another during the exhibition season. (See below)
- The league shies away from teams playing in the exhibition season if they are scheduled to play in the regular season. However, this is not always avoidable.
- Interconference game (AFC vs. NFC) matchups are common and encouraged, since regular season matchups between interconference teams are infrequent (teams play other-conference teams only once every four years during the regular season). These games allow teams to travel to particular markets more frequently than normal, and represent "fresh" matchups.
- Geographically close matchups are preferred, to provide teams with minimal (if possible) exhibition season travel. As such, intrastate rivals are frequent matchups, provided they are not already division foes (Giants/Jets, Ravens/Redskins, Eagles/Steelers, 49ers/Raiders, Bucs/Dolphins/Jaguars, etc., are all frequent exhibition matchups). The Denver Broncos and Arizona Cardinals, the only two teams in the Mountain Time Zone, also play every preseason.
- Teams with close personal ties often play each other. The Steelers and the Panthers have annually closed out the preseason together despite a 450-mile distance between Pittsburgh and Charlotte. There are numerous Pittsburgh-area ties to the Panthers organization, including former head coach John Fox (a former assistant at Pitt and the Steelers), ex-Steeler linebackers Greg Lloyd and Kevin Greene finishing out their careers at Carolina, and former Steelers safety Donnie Shell having served as the Panthers Director of Player Development since the team's inception. On the flip side, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher attended N.C. State and currently lives in Raleigh. Former Steelers players Willie Parker and Jeff Reed both attended UNC. This also reflects on the increasing number of Western Pennsylvania natives in relocating to the Carolinas. Similarly, the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions play each other annually in the preseason, since Bills owner Ralph Wilson is a native of Detroit and at one point owned a share of the Lions. In addition, both Buffalo and Detroit are the only NFL cities that border Canada, with each city located on opposite sides of Southern Ontario.
- Along with general in-state rivalries, some long-established "Governor's Cups" are played annually.
- After the division realignment in 2002, the NFL factors in former division rivalries which were broken due to teams moving to different divisions. For a five-year period from 2002–2006, the league had the authority to schedule former division rivals for exhibition games (the Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks, who were switched from the NFC East and AFC West, respectively, to the NFC West, are the most notable examples). It was a move intended to recover potentially lost revenue due to the end of a popular annual rivalry game. In some rare cases, the league has scheduled "hot" regular-season matchups if they did not happen to be scheduled to play that season. For instance, Tampa Bay and St. Louis had a popular mini-rivalry from 1999 to 2004. The teams were not scheduled to play one another in 2003, so the league reacted by scheduling a Monday night preseason game for them that season.
The teams that play in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game are determined solely by the league (and the Hall of Fame committee), featuring one AFC team and one NFC team. Its matchup is announced well in advance, around the time of the Super Bowl, when the Hall of Fame inductees are announced. Under some circumstances, the matchup is planned well into the future. For example, the Buccaneers played the Steelers in the 1998 Hall of Fame Game, a matchup that had been announced in 1983. In recent times, if there has been an expansion team added to the league, that team will be invited to play in the Hall of Fame game (Carolina, Jacksonville, the new Cleveland Browns, and Houston all played in their expansion seasons in 1995, 1995, 1999, and 2002 respectively). The 2009 game, however, was between two original American Football League teams: the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans (formerly the Houston Oilers). This matchup was announced after Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. an AFL founder and the only owner ever of the Bills, was inducted to the Pro Football Hall of Fame on February 1, 2009. The Titans' owner, Bud Adams, is also the only owner his team has ever had, and the two are the only living members of the "Foolish Club", the founders of the original eight AFL teams. Wilson and Adams are two of the only three men who have majority-owned a Professional Football franchise continuously for fifty years (the late George Halas, who owned the Chicago Bears from 1920 to 1983, is the third). The Hall of Fame game served as a kickoff to the 2009 season, which would have been the 50th season of play for the AFL, if the NFL had not merged with it.
Prior to the 1970 AFL–NFL merger it was common for teams to play each other twice in the same pre-season. Among the most recent occurrences were in 1992 when the Dallas Cowboys and Houston Oilers played on August 1 in Tokyo, then again on August 15, in Dallas, and in a more recent season, the Buccaneers and the Dolphins played each other twice in one preseason.
It was also commonplace for division opponents to play each other in the preseason, due to the larger size of pre-merger divisions, but this is no longer allowed. As recent as 1984, the Cleveland Browns and Pittsburgh Steelers played a preseason game despite the two being bitter rivals.
The College All-Star Game, usually the first game of the preseason, was played annually in Chicago from 1934 to 1976, and featured the NFL or World champion against an all-rookie team of college all-stars. During the earlier years of the competition, numerous other regional all-star games of the sort also existed. After the games became lopsided in favor of the NFL, they were abandoned. Between 1950 and 1961, the NFL also attempted exhibition matches against the Canadian Football League (mixing NFL and CFL rules); these, too, were abandoned after the 1961 preseason, after the NFL won all six matchups (the CFL finally won a game against American opposition in August 1961, but this was against an American Football League team; as a result of the embarrassment, the AFL opted not to play the CFL again beyond that one game).
Also, from 1967 to 1969, during the transition period leading up to the formal AFL-NFL merger, the NFL and American Football League played each other in a series of exhibition matches; notably, the 1969 match between the Buffalo Bills and Washington Redskins was the only time Vince Lombardi ever lost to an AFL team. The 1968 games were played under an experimental rule that eliminated extra point kicks and required a play from scrimmage to score one point (a rule later implemented by the World Football League in 1974 and the XFL in 2001).
Since 1976, no NFL team has ever faced a team outside the league; this is in contrast to current practice in the NHL and recent practice in baseball, in which teams can play exhibition games against non-league teams.
The exhibition season typically begins the first weekend of August with the Hall of Fame Game. Previous seasons have seen the American Bowl game held the last weekend of July. The first full schedule of exhibition games is held the following weekend. Most games are held on Thursday, Friday, or Saturday nights, with one nationally televised game each night of the week: NFL Network airs a Thursday game, CBS and Fox a Friday and Saturday night game each, NBC with Sunday night games, and ESPN a Monday night game. Unlike the regular season, CBS's and Fox's national exhibition game opponents are selected regardless of conference. Four full weekends of games are held. The fourth and final full week of exhibition games (fifth weekend overall) usually has teams playing exclusively on Thursday and Friday nights, with no national games. This allows teams a few extra days to prepare for the first week of the regular season. It also prevents conflict with the start of the regular seasons for high school and college football, allowing those venues to expand their first weekends' games from Thursday through Monday (Labor Day).
There is usually a conflict with the Major League Baseball season.
Nationally televised exhibition games start at 8:00 PM Eastern Time, while regionally televised games usually start at 7:00 PM local time.
Currently, every NFL team requires its season ticket holders to purchase tickets at full price for two exhibition games as a requirement to purchase regular-season tickets. Complaints regarding this policy have gone all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but have failed to change the policy. A judgment in 1974 stated: "No fewer than five lawsuits have been instituted from Dallas to New England, each claiming that the respective National Football League (NFL) team had violated the Sherman Act by requiring an individual who wishes to purchase a season ticket for all regular season games to buy, in addition, tickets for one or more exhibition or preseason games."
Additionally, some players, coaches, and journalists, and numerous fans, object to the 4-week exhibition schedule. Players have little monetary incentive to play in exhibitions, since they are paid only a training-camp per diem for these games. Their salaries do not begin until the regular season, and thus they are essentially playing in exhibitions "for free". In spite of this, the risk of injury during the exhibition season is just as great as during the regular season. Regardless of these objections, owners continue to endorse the four-game exhibition season. The games are an easy source of revenue, and thus are unlikely to be dispensed within the foreseeable future.
In 2008, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell raised the possibility of shortening the exhibition season, in favor of lengthening the regular season. By 2012, it is possible the league may switch to two primary exhibition games (down from 4) and an 18-game regular season (up from 16).
Reasons cited were solutions to future labor concerns about revenue, and the overall dissatisfaction with the exhibitions among players and fans. Also, since the NFL is now widely considered a competitive year-round business, veteran players normally train and condition year round, and do not need the extensive exhibition season to get back into playing shape after the previous regular season.
Such a change would have to be codified in the next collective bargaining agreement, which remains under negotiation as of 2011. So far, the National Football League Players Association opposes the move, citing an increased risk of injury.
- Angelo F. Coniglio v. Highwood Services, Inc., 495 F.2d 1286 (2d Cir. 1974-04-17). Text
- Starkey, Joe (2006-08-17). "Exhibition overkill". Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/s_466413.html. Retrieved 2006-11-17.