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The National Football League preseason is 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.
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; the third preseason game (or fourth for the participants in the Hall of Fame game) is generally the exception, since starters play well into the third quarter and both teams game plan for the game like the regular season. 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 beginning of the sport. In fact, until league play was formalized in 1920, one could consider virtually all of an independent professional football team's schedule to be exhibitions (as in test matches). 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.
When the NFL was founded in 1920, there were no such things as exhibition games, and all games counted in the standings and would be used to determine the league champion. In 1921 this was revised to only count games involving two league members, thus allowing non-league exhibitions but still effectively disallowing exhibitions between two league teams. This rule had a direct impact on deciding the 1921 championship, in which the losing team had insisted, both before and after, that the game only be considered an exhibition. In 1924, the league again changed the rule to declare games held in December or later to be exhibitions. By the mid-1930s, teams prepared for a standard 12-game regular season schedule, although even as late as 1939 teams would schedule non-league exhibition games both before and during the season (during bye weeks). The Pittsburgh Steelers (then known as the Pirates) were well known for playing both in the NFL and on a limited schedule in the decades-old Western Pennsylvania circuit in the 1930s.
In the 1960s, teams began playing 14 regular season games, and there was a corresponding decrease in the length of the preseason. Teams played four or five preseason games each year. (For example, in 1966 each of the nine American Football League teams each played precisely four preseason games.) By the end of the decade, however, there would be a rapid increase in the number of preseason games, quickly reaching 1950s levels.
With the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, the newly merged NFL 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. From 1970 through 1977, the NFL season consisted of 14 regular season games and six exhibition games, sometimes but not always three at home and three away (the 1973 Washington Redskins, for instance, played five out of six preseason games at home), with some played at neutral sites. Since 1978, the regular season is 16 games, and the exhibition season was cut from six to four games. Two teams play five exhibition games, however.
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 2017 cleveland browns 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 64 yard mark set by Matt Prater in the regular season (in 2013).
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.
Prior to the commencement of the NFL International Series, the NFL had another "featured" exhibition game called the American Bowl. This matchup was an extra 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 previously played home games at stadiums on the fringes of their markets or in markets not currently served by NFL teams. The Alamodome in San Antonio hosted games in this fashion, as did Rogers Centre (as part of the Bills Toronto Series), with Camp Randall Stadium, the on-campus home of Wisconsin Badgers football in Madison, Wisconsin, hosting one preseason Green Bay Packers game per year until the late 90s. The Citrus Bowl was previously 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.
While selected preseason games are televised nationally by the NFL's main broadcast partners, the majority of them are in-house productions of the individual teams, often in association with a local television broadcaster or regional sports network (such as Root Sports Northwest for the Seattle Seahawks, Comcast SportsNet Mid-Atlantic for the Washington Redskins, MSG Western New York for the Buffalo Bills and Fox Sports Detroit for the Detroit Lions). Especially if a team's flagship station is affiliated with or owned by CBS or NBC, rightsholders may also subcontract with their network's respective sports department, such as CBS Sports (in the case of the Atlanta Falcons, whose flagship is CBS-owned The CW affiliate WUPA) or NBC Sports (in the case of the New York Giants to provide resources such as camera crews and graphics, or produce the entire broadcast, giving those networks their own ability to evaluate their production teams and the chemistry of network announcing teams before the season starts.
Preseason broadcasts are typically syndicated to a network of stations within the team's market region, which also typically includes a package of team-produced programming throughout the season (such as analysis and coach's shows), local rights to games broadcast on cable, and the right to brand themselves as the "official" station of the team in the market.
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). When applicable, the NFL'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). However, the blackout restrictions have never been applied since 2015 as a result of a passed vote during the league's owners' meeting in March in which the league, as an experiment because no regular season games in the 2014 season were blacked out and an FCC vote in September 2014 to no longer enforce blackouts, eliminated blackout rules for at least the last two seasons. Many more exhibition games fail to sell out than do regular-season games.
The Hall of Fame Game is carried by NBC as an edition of Sunday Night Football, and on radio by Westwood One, with alternating carriers such as ESPN and NFL Network in Summer Olympics years, which are not allowed pre-emption of any form by NBC (locally produced games usually airing on NBC affiliates must also be re-located to other stations due to the same policy). Beginning in 2015, Compass Media Networks carries select preseason contests involving the Oakland Raiders and Dallas Cowboys nationwide. The games are also carried by the teams' local radio networks, but the affiliate count is often reduced due to conflicts with baseball and other local sports.
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:
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, was also the only owner his team has ever had. Wilson and Adams were the two last surviving members of the original AFL ownership cabal and 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 had it survived as an independent entity.
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. To this day, although multiple preseason games against the same two teams are no longer common, two teams may hold a joint practice and scrimmage in addition to a preseason contest (see, for example, the Buffalo Bills and Pittsburgh Steelers in 2014).
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 last such occurrence was in the 1999 season when the San Diego Chargers played their division rivals the Denver Broncos and Kansas City Chiefs in the preseason.
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).
Games against non-league opponents were still occasionally played, usually with the NFL teams sending a rookie "split squad" to the game. The Atlanta Falcons rookies defeated the Alabama Hawks of the Continental Football League 55-0 in a 1969 contest. In 1972, the New York Jets rookies defeated the Long Island Chiefs of the then-second-tier Seaboard Football League 29-3 in what is believed to be the last contest between an NFL team and one outside the league to date.
Since 1977, no NFL team has ever faced a team outside the league; this is in contrast to current practice in MLS, NBA, NHL and recent practice in baseball, in which teams can play exhibition games against non-league teams. Unlike the latter leagues however where a near-even parity of talent can exist with foreign or minor league teams, the NFL is stunted by the fact that the de facto second tier of American football, college football is disallowed by the NCAA from scheduling their teams to play against NFL teams, and the difference in talent between NFL and foreign and/or non-league professional teams is too large to assure competitive contests. Likewise, the differing rule sets and venues between the NFL, the CFL and the Arena Football League also complicates any real competitive attempt at an exhibition game between those organizations (NFL-CFL interleague competitions have been attempted in the past). Even in years when there has been second-tier or competing professional leagues playing by standard 11-man rules, the NFL has opted not to play exhibition games; the XFL, USFL, UFL and FXFL never played against the NFL in their short lifetimes, lest the league risk injuring its star talent or giving potential threats to its monopoly on American professional football any credibility (as it is, the FXFL relies on NFL preseason cuts for most of its rosters).
The exhibition season typically begins the first weekend of August with the Hall of Fame Game; though in some years it can be on the second weekend. 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 night (plus Friday, if any), 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, a situation seen in the 2015 preseason when the Pittsburgh Steelers moved a Sunday evening game against the Green Bay Packers at Heinz Field to a traditional 1 p.m. kickoff to avoid parking conflicts with the Pittsburgh Pirates across their shared lot at PNC Park, when the Pirates had a game moved to Sunday evening as part of ESPN's Sunday Night Baseball.
Nationally televised exhibition games start at 8:00 PM Eastern Time, while regionally televised games usually start at 7:00 PM local time. Select game nights feature rotating coverage from the NFL RedZone channel.
On various occasions, severe weather or other factors, have postponed or outright canceled some preseason games. Due to their exhibition nature, suspended or canceled preseason games are normally not made up. In 2004, Hurricane Charley postponed a Tampa Bay game against Cincinnati from Saturday until Monday. In 2001, a preseason game between Philadelphia and Baltimore was canceled due to turf problems at Veterans Stadium. Similar turf concerns prompted the league to cancel the 2016 Hall of Fame Game at the last minute. The 2017 Cowboys-Texans preseason game, originally scheduled for Houston, was at first switched to Arlington due to the flooding spawned by Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas. The day prior to the scheduled game, it was cancelled to allow the Texans, who departed Houston the previous Friday to play at New Orleans and then were diverted to Dallas/Fort Worth after the game vs. the Saints, to return to Houston.
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". 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. There was a possibility that by 2012, the league would 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. This proposal was eventually rejected in negotiations for the league's collective bargaining agreement, due to objections and concerns over fatigue and injuries raised by the National Football League Players Association.
Another proposal said to be gaining "growing sentiment among NFL owners" as of 2016 is a proposal to eliminate the last preseason game and give a league-wide bye week leading into the regular season.