It’s that time of the year again. The NFL is back — sort of. The regular season is three weeks away, but some of the action is already underway.
The value of the preseason is a perennial debate.
On the bright side, teams can glean a handful of positive benefits from these contests, and fans get a viewing product (and betting opportunities) before Week 1.
Still, the prospect of injury in games that don’t count and the fact that most of these games are utterly boring poses a challenge. The joint practices some teams hold before the regular season kicks off might genuinely be a more entertaining product.
Nevertheless, the NFL keeps coming back as early as possible, knowing that consumers will return in droves — and the league is capitalizing with preseason content like HBO’s “Hard Knocks” and the debut of its NFL+ streaming platform.
But are these games really worth it?
The Case Against The NFL Preseason
Exhibition games have existed since the NFL was founded in 1920, but over 100 years later, fans regularly raise arguments against the league’s preseason:
- The games are meaningless and the play is usually underwhelming.
- Research shows preseason performance isn’t a relevant indicator of future success.
- Starters’ minutes are limited to avoid injury.
Players aren’t necessarily fond of the format, either. Former Washington Redskins star running back Clinton Portis — who dislocated his shoulder during a preseason game in 2006 and missed half the season — has spoken out against it:
“I’ve always been against the preseason … it should be used to evaluate new talent, the people trying to make it … you only need two or three games to evaluate that talent. Just play the guys who are trying to make the team.”
In the past, teams used to play between four and six preseason games. After the league extended the regular season to 17 games in 2021, preseason was reduced to three games. Even commissioner Roger Goodell is critical of the concept, saying in 2019:
“I feel what we should be doing is always to the highest quality, and I’m not sure preseason games meet that level right now.”
But even if the entertainment value is low, there has to be a reason why preseason is still around, right? And I’m not just talking about testing out a new roster.
Preseason Ticket Sales
Ticket prices for an NFL preseason game range from $8 to $247 per ticket, with an average cost of $45 per entry in recent seasons.
That’s significantly cheaper than regular season tickets, but most tickets are still well above the $35.93 average ticket price to attend MLB regular season games.
Presumably, there’s greater demand for preseason NFL games than regular season MLB games, and why would the league or teams want to miss out on that additional revenue?
And opportunities to earn from NFL exhibitions go beyond tickets.
Selling tickets, merchandise, and concessions ahead of the regular season has its own merit, but once again it’s the NFL viewership numbers that provide the strongest proof of concept.
- Games broadcast on NFL Network from the first week of preseason this year had an average of 1.77 million viewers — up from 1.5 million in 2021, per The Athletic.
- The Jaguars-Raiders Hall of Fame game had an average rating of 3.1 and a total audience of 5.7 million viewers — making it the second-most watched sportscast in the last month, following only the MLB All-Star game on Fox with 7.51 million viewers.
CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN, and Amazon are paying a collective $113 billion for 11 seasons of NFL media rights for a reason. Seventy-five of the top 100 most-watched U.S. telecasts in 2021 were NFL games.
Checks from advertisements during preseason games cash, too.
The NFL’s new streaming service, NFL+, offers direct-to-consumer content and live out-of-market games even in its most economical version.
With a few weeks of preseason to test the platform, the NFL is able to collect data, learn from the consumption preferences of its audience, and roll out solutions that could improve performance and adoption during the regular season.
The NFL also has a long-running collaboration with Warner Bros. Discovery’s HBO to produce the successful “Hard Knocks” series that mostly documents training camps during the preseason, now in its 19th season with the Detroit Lions.
“Hard Knocks” has averaged around 4 million viewers in recent years, another point for the value of the preseason. Back in 2020, HBO and the NFL re-upped with a reported four-year extension for the show.
For What It’s Worth
Nobody loves the NFL preseason, but what are you going to do about it? Ultimately, it serves its purpose and it’s unrealistic to imagine the real season starting cold without a few sloppy exhibitions to work out the kinks.
Beyond that, those four weeks turn on the faucet of revenue streams that will run for the remainder of the season, and that alone is enough to keep the league’s preseason exhibitions greenlit, even if the on-field product doesn’t look much better than a scrimmage.