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Full prices for subpar product wouldn't cut it anywhere else

By GARY SHELTON
Published August 10, 2006


Gather round, guys. It's money time.

You have to be rough out there. You have to be ruthless. You can't be afraid to run up the score. You have to ask for no quarter because, let's face it, dollars are better.

You are an NFL owner, for crying out loud.

It's time to make 'em pay.

Welcome to preseason football, that wonderful time of year where nothing counts except the price of the tickets. Pretend football at premium prices? What a wonderful business. Turn on the lights, throw out the familiar laundry, and voila, an owner gets to visit the ATM with your card.

It is a scam inside a swindle and wrapped in an outrage, and by now, the world seems numb to it. Preseason football always has been the worst deal in sports, but after fans have been bilked for so long, the thought of throwing $50 bills toward the owner's box no longer sounds strange.

What other business would have the audacity to charge regular-season prices for glorified practices and, worst, to make it a required purchase for your most faithful, loyal customers? No one is asking for a conscience here, but NFL owners could at least blush, don't you think?

Suppose a restaurant tried that. Suppose it laid out all the familiar tablecloths and the same menu, but the cook went home after making the appetizer and instead, the kitchen was turned over to a bunch of guys trying to get a job. Say the meal wasn't nearly as satisfying. Would you swallow that?

Suppose a rock musician tried it. He opened the gates for his final rehearsal, and he tuned his guitar and played through a couple of numbers. Then the warmup acts took over and told you to sit tight, because someday, they may learn how to play.

Would you pay concert prices for that?

Yet, in the NFL, this is standard. Owners don't pay the players full scale for preseason games, yet they charge the fans full price. And if you grouse about it, they might just increase ticket prices. Again.

It should be said that, for most parties involved, the preseason works just fine.

Four games seems about two too many for most of us, but if you are an owner, you have a defensive game plan ready for that, too.

For coaches, the NFL preseason works just fine. Remember, about one out of every three coaches is a new hire, and new coaches want to see every drill they can.

For general managers, the preseason works great. Because of the salary cap, almost every team keeps almost every draft choice now. Preseason games are a nice indicator of which players might help a team a little this year and a lot next year.

For veteran players, the preseason works okay. No, the pay isn't the same as regular-season games, and the concern over injuries doesn't go away. On the other hand, it's cooler than most practices and the workday is shorter.

For rookies, the preseason is great. It's the chance to apply for a job. It's the chance for a kid who has been a star running back all his life to find out what a "wedgebuster" does.

For the fan sitting at home, the preseason is a treat. Football is finally here, in whatever form, and it gives you a chance to break that Charles McRae jersey out of the closet. Hey, it beats watching Blade: The Series.

For the ticket buyer, however, the preseason doesn't make a lot of sense. Look, everyone grouses over the price of tickets these days, but in the regular season and the playoffs, the product is worth it. It must be; fans keep lining up at the ticket window to fork over a car payment in return for a seat. But full price for preseason? A required purchase? That's a lot to ask.

For the owner, preseason games are a free trip to the money farm. No, there are no network fees, and teams don't make the same concession or parking revenues, but on the other hand, there is no payroll to worry about. Veterans don't start getting their salaries until the regular season begins.

What's the solution? For years, there has been talk of dropping two preseason games and going to an 18-game regular season. That's a ball of barbed wire, though. For one thing, it would mean more injuries. For another thing, it would mean more payroll. Most of all, it would take networks throwing large sums of money at the owners.

Can you imagine the rhetoric that would follow?

Players, naturally, would want more money for 18 games than for 16. Owners would respond that since salaries are tied to a percentage of the profits, they shouldn't get any more, that their salaries are yearly, not weekly (they are just doled out that way). And away we would go.

Likewise, you can imagine the indignation from owners if fans got together and demanded a fairer price for preseason tickets. After all, NFL owners make more money than iTunes, so they could stand a slightly smaller profit. Trust me, though, if NFL owners knocked the price if preseason tickets down $5, they would increase regular-season tickets $7. Call it a spite tax.

If I were commissioner - and this may be why I'm not - this would be my compromise. Let the owners charge what they want for tickets; heck, let them raise prices. But drop the purchase requirement for season-ticket holders.

There is no way someone paying those kinds of prices should be forced to lay down the same cash to watch The Clash of the Sixth-Rounders.

Of course, that would cause a drop in attendance, and next thing you know, owners would start talking seriously about that 18-game regular season again.

Also, they would raise the price of popcorn to $4,000 a box. Extra if you want butter.

Season-ticket holders, of course, would be required to buy.