Preseason finale: A festival of reserves

The preseason finale is expected to be the usual festival of the backups, leading to more discontent among Minnesota Vikings and NFL fans.

For all the things that the NFL does right, one of the areas that remains a source of some embarrassment is how the league handles the preseason – a process that will be on full display this Thursday as the league finally concludes its four-game preseason schedule to little fanfare or fan interest.

There was a time when the preseason games held some meaning – yes, even the final preseason game – as frontline starters saw more action as each passing week came and went. Not too long ago, the final game of the preseason was typically a tune-up for the regular season with starters seeing action in the first half of games. Now, the league has, by design, made the final preseason games something of a junior varsity joke.

The preseason has become in many ways as big a farce as the Pro Bowl, a stain on the game that almost completely lacks the level of fan interest needed to market the product on the field. With teams fearing that star players will be potentially injured, the NFL has done its best to make its preseason games Must Skip TV.

Adrian Peterson hasn’t seen the field in the preseason and won’t. Aaron Rodgers has been benched for the final two preseason games for the same reason. Players across the league have been either dialed back or shut down completely out of fear of potential season-ending injury in games that don’t matter in the win-loss column.

Perhaps nowhere is that change in attitude more prevalent than in this week’s final tune-up game before the start of the regular season. Despite most teams playing their third preseason game on Saturday – there were even a pair of Sunday games – the final preseason games will all be played on Thursday in front of sparse crowds not all that interested in watching players on the roster bubble ply their trade on local TV.

The preseason has become a running joke for the growing fan base of the NFL. Some teams try hard, playing their starters beyond the standard amount of time for a preseason game. Others seemingly don’t care whatsoever about how much time their frontline players see on the field. The result is a hodgepodge of differing levels of caring about the preseason that creates mismatches, as one team trots out its second-team offense or defense while another still has its starters involved.

The NFL has been trying to tackle the problem of the preseason being too long and too boring for the casual fan base that has helped make the NFL the top spectator sport in the country. There has been talk of reducing the number of preseason games down to two and adding two more regular season games – a plan that has been met with strong resistance from the players association. There seems to be no middle ground on the matter, because, while the fans don’t care much for watching backups and roster-bubble types deciding games late, the NFL owners have no interest in just making preseason games go away.

In the NFL, owners share revenue. Guys like Jerry Jones hated stadiums like the Metrodome, which couldn’t generate much in the way of in-house income because it didn’t have the amenities many of the newer stadiums in the league could provide. The Vikings were getting the same taste of the revenue pie that teams like Dallas did, despite generating a minor percentage of the income that AT&T Stadium can generate on a game day.

The only exception to the revenue sharing model comes in the preseason. Every team gets two home games and the revenue generated from those games stays with the home team. There is no shared pot of money in the preseason. Whatever a team brings, it gets to keep. For that reason, there is little incentive for owners to get rid of the four preseason games because it is the rare chance for an organization to take advantage of a strong level of interest from its particular fan base. While some stadiums are largely empty for preseason games, teams like the Packers and Vikings routinely fill the place with team-addicted fans.

As long as owners have revenue streams from the preseason, it likely isn’t going to change any time soon.

As long as key players get injured in games, many teams are going to err on the side of caution and not play them, thus diluting the product that is shown on TV. One needs look no further than the Packers to question the validity of risking starters in the preseason. Even with minimal usage, the team has lost wide receiver Jordy Nelson for the year and Randall Cobb is a question mark for Week 1 with a shoulder injury. While those same injuries could happen in practice or a regular season game, it seems more palatable for injuries to take place in a game that means something.

The 2015 preseason will conclude Thursday with 16 games that will be largely for friends and relatives only. Many starters won’t even dress for the game and the action will be played largely by players who will be released once the games are over. In all, 22 players will need to be released (or placed on a reserve list) from each roster by 3 p.m. Central Saturday.

There is something seriously flawed about the way preseason games are conducted and the impact they have on both the teams themselves and the fans bases they represent. There’s no indication that anything is going to change soon, but it seems time for the NFL to take a long, hard look at its preseason schedule and consider making changes to increase interest in its product, rather than making games virtually unwatchable for casual fans.

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