Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Reasons for the Pre Season

A few years ago, I penned a screed about how much I hate exhibition football games. I don’t recall if I encouraged scuttling it, though in a less lucid moment I might have.

Even though I still loathe pre-season games (I almost never use my tickets for them), I’ve had a major change of heart on the subject, largely due to one man: Pierre Thomas.

While Quarterback Drew Brees is without a doubt the cornerstone of the New Orleans Saints championship team, Thomas’s contributions to the successful hunt for the Vince Lombardi Trophy cannot be denied or minimized.

It was Thomas that largely established the Saints ground game, finally brining some balance to a potent, yet one-sided and thus predictable…and thus easier to defend against, offense.

Number twenty-three rushed for 793 yards and 6 touchdowns while catching 39 receptions for 302 yards and 2 touchdowns. And it should be noted that Thomas was the first Saint ever to cross into the end zone with a football in a (the?) Super Bowl.

And where did the Saints pick up this fine athletic specimen?

Why the NFL equivalent of the Dollar Tree, as the Black and Gold inked him as an undrafted free agent in 2007.

Granted it took Thomas some time to establish himself into a solid contributor but had it not been for a pre-season game against Kansas City, the Illinois product might have languished on the practice squad or worse yet, blossom on some other team’s roster.

Before Thomas, I looked at pre season games as merely opportunities for star players to get hurt in meaningless games and for NFL teams to bilk fans into buying tickets via a season ticket package to games they don’t want to go to for the same price as a regular season ticket.

Now I look at them as job interviews for players who haven’t anchored a spot on the roster by virtue of a draft pick investment. Don’t get me wrong, I (and apparently many other season ticket holders) buy these tickets that either go unused or are dumped at an Enron-stock discount because I have to, not because I want to.

The reason why I skip these games in person is that I don’t want to spend the money, time and hassle of going to “training camp with live ammo” when I can view it comfortably at home. While the team owner benefits in guaranteed ticket sales via a backed up season ticket holder list (pending on the market), they don’t profit as much from "sell-outs" with thousands of chairs.

That means $8 beers are not being sold and overpriced tchotchkies are not being purchased. Which is why owners should do one of two things.

First, don’t make acquiring pre-season tickets a part of a season ticket plan and instead sell them directly at a reduced rate. For those fans stuck at the back of a ticket list the size of a phone book who don’t want to go the StubHub route, the availability of reasonably priced tickets to exhibition games might be welcome…and could lead to families attending the least desired football games.

The second option is to simply make the exhibition games traveling road contests allocated to two large cities within a team’s extended media market. This is precisely what happened in 2006 before the Superdome renovation was complete as the Saints played their two “home” pre-season games in Shreveport and Jackson, Mississippi.

Prior to receiving an expansion franchise, New Orleans had hosted exhibition football games, which helped make the Crescent City’s case for an NFL team.

Furthermore, the league should not play regular season games overseas. Give London and Tokyo exhibition games instead of regular season games some unlucky fans involuntarily sacrifice in the name of expanding the overall brand.

One thing the NFL should definitely not do to appease the fans (who are they trying to pull with this line?) is to trim pre-season games and expand regular season games by two.

As mentioned earlier, pre season games, while not popular, are important for player development and the last chance unknowns and small school stars that were drafted late if at all to get their shot at making teams. It's also when established palyers shake off the rust of the off-season. While training camp is intense, it's no substitute to taking on another team in full pads.

The NFL has the best and most logical schedule rotational system in sports…why screw it up by adding two games.

Also, why risk the health of the league’s superstars by extending a grueling season further? I know money…but it’s still not right.

And then there is the Roger Maris argument: adding two more games means NFL records will start to fall. Does anyone doubt Brees’s capacity to break Dan Marino’s single season passing record with 18 games? And should Brees’s potential accolade be besmirched with an asterisk?

Finally, fans of successful teams are going to have those pre-season games anyway…at the back end! Once teams secure their byes and/or playoff spots, the scrubs are getting sent in for the balance of the season. How much whining took place when the Colts benched their starters to avoid the risk of damaging their Super Bowl talent?

Though I don’t care much for pre-season game, I care far less for the certainty of star players getting injured with substitutes taking their place in post-season.

The 18 game schedule comes from the mind of the man who thinks a February Super Bowl in the uncovered stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey is a swell idea.

It is a rare moment when this pre-strike ex-baseball junkie sides with the players’ union but I hope that they can put this greed-inspired maneuver on ice come contract negotiation time.

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