By Steve Kelly
So, according to NFL Network, the preseason may be shortened from four games to two.
Why not just bite the bullet and. cancel them altogether?
Now and in the future, team owners are guaranteed 10 games in their home stadium, each of which represent around $7-10 million in gate receipts alone (with home regular-season contests drawing even more dollars). Owners are not hurrying to throw that money out the door because people complain about watching preseason football on Twitter.
Cutting preseason games in half will be a much easier pill to swallow for team owners if attendance will be low or nil due to COVID-19. At present, we are trending in a direction where most NFL stadiums would be operating at limited capacity. Less revenue from gate receipts minus expenses for staffing an event at the stadium wouldn’t be so bad for owners.
But the local TV contracts and ad money from those deals would be a problem. Add in the fact that you’d have to make your in-stadium sponsors whole somehow from the game reduction and each team owner could realistically be looking at a loss in the low-eight figures. That is not insignificant money when multiplied across 32 teams and split nearly in half with the players for the 2021 salary cap, which already figures to take a hit based off the current formula.
In recent years, more coaches have come around to the thinking that they get more out of controlled scrimmages against upcoming preseason opponents than the exhibition itself. Coaches in many cases have started resting starters earlier and more often in the exhibition after getting two or so days of good work on the practice fields between teams.
But the COVID-19 realities of the world have put a pause on those scrimmages. Teams will now be training at their own facilities and, for the time being at least, only travel for the away exhibitions. An exhibition reduction by two games would represent a loss of meaningful reps both for the veterans who need to get into game shape and the down-the-roster players looking to get film and make an impact.
It will also mean fewer chances for first-year coaching staffs to get acclimated to their new teams. Already they’ve been limited to Zoom meetings for the entire offseason.
Fewer “meaningless” games would certainly mean fewer meaningless injuries. But even with the hope of increased “ramp-up” time, a loss of exhibition and scrimmage reps would likely mean players won’t be as prepared for Week 1. Soft tissue injuries could spike in September.
Take away two exhibitions, though, and you reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission with players. Each team would save one plane trip to a different stadium facing a group of (tested) 90 men plus coaches and support staff. Plus, host teams won’t have to re-configure the visitor locker room — and other parts of the stadium — to accommodate a traveling team while respecting the six feet of physical distance required by the league’s protocols.
The preseason reduction may very well happen and be necessary from practical and safety perspectives. But that reduction will also have impacts both on the field and in the wallets of all involved.