How to Make Preseason Football Palatable Instead of Just Passable

AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton

by Hombre de Acero

Note: Many of you know Hombre’s website, Steel Curtain Rising, which keeps him pretty busy. We’re thrilled that he is making his Going Deep debut. Enjoy!


The headline speaks for itself. If we accept ESPN.com’s declaration that “The Steelers need this preseason to die after suspensions, injuries, lifeless defense” then let’s accept that this author is making his debut article here on Going Deep by walking on thin ice. Fair enough. But what’s the point of walking on thin ice if the water below you isn’t deep?

Summer after summer, the groaning about preseason football gets louder and louder. And the comparisons get more clever. “Like watching paint dry…” “About as entertaining as a root canal…” “As fascinating as cutting finger nails….” This is all unfortunate. Because preseason football doesn’t need to be received this way.

Preseason has inherent value both from a football, business and entertainment perspective.

No, that’s not a misprint. Far from it, however unpopular such sentiments might be in Steelers Nation. And that unpopularity is understandable, given that the Steelers have lost Maurkice Pouncey, Shaun Suisham and Garrett Hartley in preseason.

Those losses, while damaging and discouraging don’t change the truth.

I’ve written variants of the “Eat your broccoli, eat your brussels sprouts – and remember preseason football is good for you” treatises elsewhere, and I will simply rehash the basic premises here because they’re relevant to the larger point: What’s wrong with preseason football isn’t so much the product as the packaging. 

From a fan’s perspective, preseason football offers a three pronged value-prop:

  1. Preseason gives fans their only chance to evaluate young talent on their own
  2. Preseason offers a good preview of how individual units are shaping up
  3. The guys playing late in preseason games are 100% guaranteed to play their hearts out

Points one and three should be self-evident. Point number two is less so and while it’s not always true, most of the time it is. Case in point—Steelers Nation has probably seen enough to know it’s not too early to worry about the 2015 Steelers defense. But fans and the press lose sight of these three points because how the NFL markets its preseason product.

My first boss in marketing taught me something very important about the dynamics of the entertainment marketing. At the time, TNT was promoting “7 Days of 007.” This was prior to Netflix, YouTube or other view on demand services, and my boss used that campaign as an example of how packaging help shapes the product itself.

Most viewers had already seen the Bond films before, he contended, but the catchy way TNT bundled them together they helped remind fans of why they liked Bond in the first place, and showing them together helped focus interest in them and drive ratings.

The NFL would do wise to begin applying the same concepts to the way it packages preseason football.

Stop Treating Preseason Football as Something It Is Not

The NFL came of age in the 1970’s as the premier sport in the United States, and only has deepened its hold on US culture, concern about brain trauma not withstanding.  Since then, the NFL has also seen end-to-end evolution in every aspect of its operation, except perhaps for preseason football.

In the 70’s, 80’s and even into the 1990’s, preseason football was a big deal.

That’s because the time from February to July, save for the NFL Draft, really was the off season. The advent of free agency in 1993 changed that in a big way, but fans were still only able to read about football. They still couldn’t see it. In that context, preseason football was an oasis. In marketing terms, it meant that as a product, preseason football could stand on its own.

That’s changed.

Thanks to YouTube, DVD’s, NFL.com, and every NFL teams’ website, fans have multiple means to get their football fix 24 hours a day, 365 days a week. Similarly, the NFL scouting combine, free agency, the draft, OTA’s and mini-camp have rendered the true off season to something that starts in June and ends in July. In contrast, NFL preseason remains stuck in the ‘80’s.

The first change the NFL can make is to stop charging full prices for preseason tickets and make their purchase optional for season ticket holders.

This is a no-brainer. Long gone are the days when coaches such as Chuck Noll would use the final preseason game as a dress rehearsal for the regular season. Charging major league prices for less than major league talent isn’t just morally wrong, its bad business, and there’s ample evidence to prove it.

In his coverage of the Hall of Fame game, veteran Pittsburgh journalist John Steigerwald didn’t choose write about Jerome Bettis or focus on the debuts of defenders like Bud Dupree or Doran Grant. Instead he titled his article “First String Money for Third String Football.” This isn’t surprising. But here’s an observation no one ever makes:

A lot more people make the “major league prices for less than major league talent” complaint than are actually impacted by it.

Seriously. The average fan isn’t paying a cent for preseason tickets, yet they still complain about their regular season cost. If nothing else, that shows you how much of a problem the NFL has on its hands.

Preseason football is an exhibition, and the NFL would do well to begin treating it accordingly.

Take Preseason on the Road

The root of exposition is “expose.” Webster’s defines expose as “to cause (someone) to experience something or to be influenced or affected by something.” If the NFL were smart, they would use preseason football to expose more people to the sport. They could begin by taking preseason football on the road.

The NFL is the nation’s most popular sports league, yet only 32 cities have NFL teams.

That opens the NFL to an almost endless stream of locales who’d doubtlessly love to get the chance to see NFL football in their back yards. The Steelers and Eagles could face off at Beaver Stadium in State College. The Browns and Bengals could play at Ohio State in Columbus. The Redskins and the Panthers could play in Richmond. Wouldn’t a Falcon’s-Panthers preseason game at the Citadel generate some excitement for the NFL in Charleston?

These sorts of alternative venues choices are intuitive for many, but not all franchises.

The beauty of it is, they don’t need to be. The NFL has reams of data on television ratings and website traffic that they can tie to geographies. That makes it simple to pinpoint where interest is strongest. In the same vein, that data also gives the NFL a chance to see where its popularity might benefit from a boost of having live game staged nearby.

While the idea of bringing live NFL action to places where it is traditionally inaccessible has a populist appear, it also benefits the bottom line, by allowing both teams and the league to connect with new pockets of fans.

This premise doesn’t simply apply to live preseason games, but also to televised ones.

Down here in Buenos Aires, Argentina, NFL fans can (legally) watch American football by either on-line via NFL’s Game Pass or on TV via DirectTV’s NFL Sunday ticket. But Direct TV does not carry preseason games and you must pay for NFL Game Pass to watch preseason. Let’s submit that the business logic of the NFL charging fans in developing markets like South America for regular season games is dubious, but charging for preseason is sheer idiocy.

Similarly, the NFL should take advantage of technology, and allow fans in the US to watch their favorite teams in preseason, regardless of location. The reason why the NFL doesn’t want to do that is the same reason why they don’t take preseason on the road – the NFL owners don’t want to lose the revenue they get from their club seats and luxury boxes.

That’s short sighted because ultimately the money lost would be an investment and not a cost.

Preseason Football: A Proving Ground, Not a Preview

Properly promoting preseason football means the NFL needs to recognize that the nature of its product has changed. All of griping about preseason football proves that the days of “Football is Finally Back!” can no longer carry the exhibition season.

Preseason’s purpose isn’t to showcase the NFL’s best talent, it’s to develop that talent.

The NFL must recalibrate its marketing accordingly. Fortunately, the challenge isn’t that daunting. Franco Harris took his very first preseason carry and was supposed to run off of the left end. He started that way, but there was nothing there. So he planted his foot, reversed course, and took off for a 75 yard touchdown.

Dick Hoak recounts how, after that play, Chuck Noll walked over and instructed “Dick, don’t over-coach him.”

Somewhere, in the archives of WTAE, NBC or NFL Films the tape of that play has to exist. Ditto Ben Roethlisberger’s first preseason touchdown pass. Ditto Greg Lloyd’s first preseason sack. Tape of Merril Hoge breaking tackles on some steamy summer evening must be out there. All it takes is someone with access and the elbow grease to find it.

Then the product sells itself.

Imagine gold lettering on a black background proclaiming “The Making of a Hall of Famer”  fading to semi-grainy footage of Atlanta’s Fulton County Stadium with a voice over informing “On an August evening back in 1972, Chuck Noll gave a rookie running back out of Penn State his first NFL carry. This is what happened….”

Cut to image of Harris taking it to the house. If audio commentary of Myron Cope and Jack Flemming can be included, all the better.

“Noll’s instruction to his coaches? ‘Don’t over-coach him’ and Franco Harris’ Hall of Fame career was born.

Every great NFL player cuts his teeth in preseason. That’s what it’s all about. Tune into KDKA tomorrow to see the next generation of Steelers take their first steps.”

Cut to Tag Line

NFL Preseason – A Proving Ground, Not a Preview

The concept is simple, and can be applied and reproduced across all 32 NFL teams (well, maybe not in Jacksonville) as well as nationally. If distributed wisely, it is easy to imagine such promos going viral.

Counting the post season and the bye week, the NFL is in operation approximately 25 weeks out of the year. That means the preseason accounts for 16% of its inventory. Right now that’s 16% that’s not so much consumed as it is tolerated by a growing portion of the fan base. With just a little bit of creativity, the NFL can reposition preseason football so that it’s a productive part of its portfolio again.

7 comments

  • My burning answer.

    I believe the preseason should be shortened to two games in which it would be wise to rest the starters (preventing injuries) and play the reserves (giving teams a good look at who will make the team) with a week break before the start of the regular season. Then extend the regular season two games making for an eighteen game season which will enrich both players and teams.

    I believe the NFL has already considered and proposed this idea and I expect it to be implemented fairly soon.

    I believe that the Steelers will win the Super Bowl this season.

    Couldn’t pass on the opportunity for three believes in a row : )

    Good to see you, Hombre, thanks for posting.

    Like

    • Thanks for the kind words.

      What I’m about to say is highly unpopular given that the Steelers just endured the “preseason from hell” but I’m an unapologetic supporter of the preseason.

      2 games simply isn’t enough to evaluate young talent.

      Look at Landry Jones. He was clearly better at the end of preseason than at the beginning. OK, outside of Jones, Roosevelt Nix and Berry this Steelers preseason/training camp didn’t provide a lot of good examples of young talent emerging. (There are a couple of three potentially worrying trends that emerged, ones that have nothing to do with injuries, during this preseason, but its far too early to hit the panic button.)

      I could see going to a 3 game preseason as an intermediate step.

      All of this presupposes that the NFL stick to a 16 game regular season.

      Any plan to replace 2 preseason games with 2 more regular season games is sheer lunacy. Just think back to the Steelers playoff loss to Denver in 2011. At the time Rebecca had the courage to stand up and say the Steelers were lucky to lose that game, or else they’d have been starting practice squad players in the divisional playoff round.

      That was the Steelers 17th game of the season. So had the Steelers been playing an 18 game season, they’d have still had one more regular season game to play.

      Like

  • I thought the 18 game season was nixed by the NFLPA and is not likely to show up again for awhile. Maybe the next CBA fight?

    While it is good to say that the NFL should treat the pre-season like a pre-season…lowering prices, travelling, etc….these are things the league will never NEED to do. Fans gripe about the prices, but still pay to go to pre-season games. Browns – Bengals at Ohio Stadium? The NFL would expect Ohio State to pay for that privilege and Cbus is a college town. Other examples might work, but it’ll always be the NFL demanding to be paid.

    It’s all about the dollar. And as long as fans keep spending them, the NFL will keep taking them.

    I didn’t watch a single minute of pre-season football. I don’t feel that I missed anything at all — not anything that wasn’t replayed in GIF form on a blog or two.

    Like

    • I’m not sure where the 18 game season stands. There was clearly movement towards it before the new CBA, although afterwards I saw reports that the whole “18 game season is a done deal” was spin and that the 18 game season was more of a bargaining chip.

      It does seem clear that the NFLPA is not in favor of an 18 game season, and given the tone and tenor of the things today, I don’t think the NFLPA is interested in backing down on this.

      As for the need/lack of need to modifying how it treats the preseason, yes fans do grip but keep paying, but on some of those highlight reels I’ve noticed a lot of empty seats.

      At the end of the day you’re right. I’m sure some of these ideas, like taking preseason games on the road, have been discussed by the NFL. But the truth is that, unless I’m mistaken, NFL owners do not split revenue for preseason games, unlike regular season games. That’s one reason why teams that play in the Hall of Fame game (or in the old America Bowls) played 5 preseason games — no one wants to be the team that plays only one home game.

      Like

      • It would help the conversation to know what percentage of a team’s revenue came from the gate and how much comes from television revenue. I imagine the NFLPA will back down when the players themselves are looking at signing fatter contracts especially when the league allows for a second bye week every season and increases the number of players a team can have on the roster.

        The last couple of ideas should help minimize the effects of an eighteen game schedule on the effectiveness of the players towards the end of the season and the overall health of the team entering the playoffs. More rest and more players.

        I hear everything you are saying and agree but do believe the NFL and the players association will come to agreement on this at the next collective bargaining agreement. Anybody know when the present one is scheduled to run out?

        Like

  • The CBA reached in 2011 was for ten years. Today’s landscape is already radically different now than it was then and it is very hard to predict that the NFL owners and NFLPA will be trying to get out of the next agreement. Given the way things are now, a work stoppage is likely.

    Would the NFLPA go stir crazy at an automatic 12.5% across the board salary increase for everyone, plus the addition of a half dozen more roster spots?

    Perhaps.

    But that would be foolish in their part.

    Just look at the Steelers as an example. In five preseason games they’ve lost two kickers, a backup quarterback and a Pro Bowl center. On top of that, the Steelers have enough guys on the “waived/injured” list to eat up 11 million dollars in salary cap space.

    The average Steelers starter has probably averaged a total of 5 quarters of play. If the Steelers were playing an 18 game season, that total would already be at 8 quarters almost double the wear and tear, double the opportunity for injury.

    Expanding rosters would help – in some cases, to soften the impact of an 18 game season. But is a coach really going to take his starting QB out for a couple of series? Perhaps more to the point, is he going to rest/rotate his stud pass blockers? There are some positions in the NFL were you can use a little quantity to make up for quality, but there are others where you simply can’t do that.

    The idea of the extra bye week sounds good on paper, but it also has its short comings.

    Adding an extra bye week increases the number of games that you can put on TV, but also dilutes their quality. The NFL experimented with two bye weeks in 1993 and it was a disaster. There were plenty of weeks when the top two games were the equivalent of Oakland vs. Jacksonville and Tennessee vs. Tampa.

    Aside from the human downside of an 18 game season (i.e. injury dangers), I think an 18 game season simple amounts to too much over exposure for the NFL. That, as much as anything else is the point to this article about marketing preseason better. The NFL is currently trying to lob preseason is as if it is no different than the regular season and that strategy is backfiring (I’ve seen plenty of Steelers 2015 low light clips on Steelers.com, and Heinz Field looks awfully empty.)

    You may be right. Greed might get the best of the NFLPA and they might be bought off for an 18 game season. However, if I’m reading the tea leaves correctly, the NFLPA’s next big target is guaranteed contracts. That’s a smart move on their part. While they won’t win 100% guaranteed contracts on their next round, greater contract guarantees will mean more money in the pockets of the players.

    And I don’t think the NFL owners will tie greater contract guarantees to a 17 or 18 game season because they know full well that would more money spent on injured players.

    Liked by 1 person

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