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Commentary
NFL flexes muscle in heat
August 10, 2001: 7:18 a.m. ET

Preseason best shows league's clout compared to players, other sports
A Weekly Column by Staff Writer Chris Isidore
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NEW YORK (CNNfn) - The best place to see the National Football League flex its muscle isn't amid the hype and media frenzy of January's Super Bowl -- it's in the heat and humidity of August's preseason.

The preseason is about big TV ratings for games that don't count in the standings. It's about getting all-pro veterans and rank rookies to sweat through August heat without any assurance that they'll get all of the money they've agreed to.

And while the preseason doesn't have scalpers charging astronomical sums for tickets, it does have season ticket holders paying full price for tickets they are forced to buy in order to continue to keep their right to tickets to regular season games.

"They're impossible to get rid of, even to give away, let alone try to sell," said Eric Morgenstern, whose family has held New York Giants season tickets since 1969, and who estimates that more than half of his preseason tickets have gone unused in that time. "There's a waiting list for Giants season tickets in this town. If you want to give them back, they're happy to sell them to someone else."

The preseason doesn't have companies spending millions on ads produced just for the game. But the NFL's three networks all air meaningless exhibition games to a national audience, and get better ratings than the typical regular season games of the nation's other sports.

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Chris Isidore covers the business of sports for CNNfn.com.
The Hall of Fame game between the St. Louis Rams and the Miami Dolphins drew a 6.3 rating on Monday night on ABC. While that's well off the 10.1 rating of the same games two years ago, it's still more than double the average rating for nationally televised regular season baseball or basketball games. It also just edged the ratings of ABC's programming the previous Monday night, a made-for-TV golf match including Tiger Woods, David Duval and the top two women golfers Annika Sorenstam and Karrie Webb.

Even last year's average preseason game rating of 5.4 is considered respectable summer viewership. As if the league didn't have enough advantages, the games come during the softest spot on the year's television schedule, generally competing against reruns.

"The other sports would kill if they get numbers like that," Barbara Zidovsky, vice president for Nielsen Sports Marketing service, said about the NFL preseason ratings.

Preseason all-or-nothing time for players

The preseason also shows the league's power over its players, both veterans and rookies. They're sweating it out for a limited number of roster spots, knowing that not making the team means not being paid this season.

NFL training camps are getting an unusually high amount of attention this year after the death of Minnesota Vikings all-pro offensive tackle Korey Stringer, apparently from heat stroke suffered during a practice.

Stringer's 2001 salary of $2.85 million was guaranteed, but his agent was able to win that partly because it helped free up room under the league's salary cap meant to limit each team's annual salary.

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The family of Minnesota Viking All-Pro offensive tackle Korey Stringer, who died after suffering from heat stroke during a pre-season practice last week, may not get the $7.8 million he was due for 2002 and 2003 seasons because few NFL contracts have guaranteed pay.
The relatively rare guaranteed salaries of star players are averaged out over the life of the contract for salary cap purposes, while the typical contract that is not guaranteed is counted against only that year's cap.

The advantage to a player who has a guaranteed contract is obvious. The disadvantage is less obvious -- it creates on paper a higher salary for the player in the last years of his contract and is leading to an increasing trend of veterans being cut late in their contracts to free up salary cap room.

Stringer was going into the third year of a five-year deal. It is not clear even to his agent, James Gould, if Stringer's widow and children will ever see any of an estimated $7.8 million in salary and bonuses due under the contract for 2002 and 2003.

"Right now we're grieving, trying to gather facts of what happened out there," said Gould. "We haven't talked to the team about the future years. We will be exploring that, but whether it would be a good faith gesture, a settlement, call it what you will, it probably won't be a contract payment."

That's different from baseball players, who almost always have their major league contracts guaranteed, and who are paid the full amount even if they die from non-baseball related causes, as Cleveland Indian players Steve Olin and Tim Crews were in a boating accident during spring training of 1993.

Gould said that even some of the players have trouble realizing that the contracts they sign get them little or nothing if they don't make the team out of training camp.

"They've just signed a three-year deal and it may be worth a million," he said. "They want to go buy a car, and their family and friends are looking to them with their hands out. How would you like to sit there and tell them, 'Until you walk out of training camp, that money's not yours.' They think you don't believe in them, but it's most painful thing to watch when that (being cut in training camp) happens. It's like a deer in the headlights."

But the tremendous advantage that owners have not having to pay players who are cut isn't likely to end soon. Unlike their baseball owner brethren, the NFL management has a track record in labor negotiations that would make Vince Lombardi smile.

Salary caps, restrictions on bonuses, and free agency are the parts of the contract won by management that get the most attention. But the lack of guaranteed contracts affects the economics probably as much as anything else, especially since only a bit more than half of players invited to the NFL camp will make the team on opening day, and career-ending injuries are common.

Guaranteed contracts "are your No. 1 issue that needs to happen (in labor negotiations) and it will not happen for some time," said Gould.

Until it does change, the heat and humidity of training camp will continue to be a make-or-break situation for the players, and will combine with the sweetheart TV package and season ticket requirements to create a very comfortable environment for the league's bottom line. graphic

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2018 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2018. All rights reserved. Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor's Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2018 and/or its affiliates.