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The games are useful for new players who are not used to playing in front of very large crowds. Management often uses the games to evaluate newly signed players. Veteran players will generally play only for about a quarter of each game (or less) in order to avoid injury; the third preseason game (or fourth for the participants in the Hall of Fame game) is generally the exception, since starters play well into the third quarter and both teams game plan for the game like the regular season. Thus, first-stringers’ playing time is kept brief in the exhibition season, and in fact players are not paid their regular salaries for exhibitions, but the same per diem which they receive for training camp.
The exhibition game tickets, however, are usually the same price as regular-season games. Several lawsuits, by individual fans or by class action, have been brought against specific teams or the entire NFL over the practice of requiring season-ticket holders to purchase exhibition games. To date, none of these suits has been successful.
Exhibition games have been played in professional football since the beginning of the sport. In fact, until league play was formalized in 1920, one could consider virtually all of an independent professional football team’s schedule to be exhibitions (as in test matches). In the early years of the sport, teams often “barnstormed”, and played squads from leagues outside their own, or against local college teams or other amateur groups, charging fans whatever the traffic would bear.
When the NFL was founded in 1920, there were no such things as exhibition games, and all games counted in the standings and would be used to determine the league champion. In 1921 this was revised to only count games involving two league members, thus allowing non-league exhibitions but still effectively disallowing exhibitions between two league teams. This rule had a direct impact on deciding the 1921 championship, in which the losing team had insisted, both before and after, that the game only be considered an exhibition. In 1924, the league again changed the rule to declare games held in December or later to be exhibitions. By the mid-1930s, teams prepared for a standard 12-game regular season schedule, although even as late as 1939 teams would schedule non-league exhibition games both before and during the season (during bye weeks). The Pittsburgh Steelers (then known as the Pirates) were well known for playing both in the NFL and on a limited schedule in the decades-old Western Pennsylvania circuit in the 1930s.
In the 1960s, teams began playing 14 regular season games, and there was a corresponding decrease in the length of the preseason. Teams played four or five preseason games each year. (For example, in 1966 each of the nine American Football League teams each played precisely four preseason games.) By the end of the decade, however, there would be a rapid increase in the number of preseason games, quickly reaching 1950s levels.
With the AFL–NFL merger of 1970, the newly merged NFL was granted a Sherman Anti-Trust Act exemption, which emboldened some team owners to expand the exhibition schedule and to require season-ticket holders to pay for one, then two, then three home exhibition games if they wanted to keep their season tickets. The exhibition season then became, and remains, a large source of owner revenue that is not shared with the players. From 1970 through 1977, the NFL season consisted of 14 regular season games and six exhibition games, sometimes but not always three at home and three away (the 1973 Washington Redskins, for instance, played all but one of six preseason games at home), with some played at neutral sites. Since 1978, the regular season is 16 games, and the exhibition season was cut from six to four games. Two teams play five exhibition games, however.
From 1999 to 2001, when the league consisted of an uneven 31 teams, some additional exhibition games (usually 2 or 3) were played over Hall of Fame weekend. In order to account for the uneven number of teams, each team was required to have a bye week during the exhibition season. Most teams held their bye week in Hall of Fame weekend, while the others utilized them somewhere else during the exhibition season. This practice was abandoned after the Houston Texans were added to the league in 2002, giving it an even 32 teams.
The exhibition games do not count toward any statistics, streaks, season standings or records whatsoever. For instance, the four wins incurred by the 2008 Detroit Lions & the 2017 Cleveland Browns exhibition seasons did not count “against them” when they went on to become the only teams to go 0–16; and the 1972 Dolphins, despite losing three exhibition games, are still considered to have played a perfect season. Similarly, Ola Kimrin’s 65-yard field goal in an exhibition game is not considered the league record, despite being longer than the 64 yard mark set by Matt Prater in the regular season (in 2013).
Still, professional football is popular enough that many fans still pay full price for exhibition game tickets, which they must purchase in order to keep their regular-season seats. Many teams are sold out on a season ticket basis and have large waiting lists, with fans required to pay a one-time or annual fee for the privilege of remaining on the waiting list. A minority of teams offer promotions and discounts to fill the stands for exhibition games; an example of this is the Buffalo Bills’ annual “Kids Day” promotion, where tickets, already the lowest priced in the league, are slashed to bargain-basement prices (around $10) for children under 12.
International and neutral-site games
Prior to the commencement of the NFL International Series, the NFL had another “featured” exhibition game called the American Bowl. This matchup was an extra exhibition game for the two teams involved and was often played on the same weekend as the Hall of Fame Game. It was played outside the United States, usually in Mexico or Japan; in the latter case, it often involved games that started at 5:00 A.M. U.S. Eastern time. The American Bowl was held from 1986 to 2005; similar international matches had occurred regularly since 1969.
In addition, teams previously played home games at stadiums on the fringes of their markets or in markets not currently served by NFL teams. The Alamodome in San Antonio hosted games in this fashion, as did Rogers Centre (as part of the Bills Toronto Series), with Camp Randall Stadium, the on-campus home of Wisconsin Badgers football in Madison, Wisconsin, hosting one preseason Green Bay Packers game per year until the late 90s. The Citrus Bowl was previously a common venue for games. The Carrier Dome in Syracuse, New York has been mentioned as a potential site for such a game, with the host team not yet mentioned.