The NFL is not going to be nice to us forever, you know.
We used to think football on the television every autumn Sunday was among those inalienable rights somehow foreseen by Thomas Jefferson.
Until this season, that is.
We used to think whenever two games of national interest were played simultaneously, we could choose to watch whichever we wanted--or switch from a dull game to a better one.
Until last weekend, we did.
We actually used to think, in our less perceptive moments, that NFL football existed primarily to improve life in front of the Box.
Until, that is, the very same Box bid so much money--more than $2 billion over five years--to keep NFL football away from the Home Box--cable and pay TV in general--that the delicate ecological balance finally collapsed. NFL players, hoping for a share of that inflated TV bonanza, made their first network programming decision.
It ran for eight weeks.
And now, if you harbor complaints about NFL coverage this oddball season, you had better start remembering what must certainly be, after 1982, the cardinal rule of pro sports: You get what you pay for.
So, how much did you pay for your Pat Summerall, your Dick Enberg and your Frank Gifford this year? Was there a surcharge for John Madden? A rebate for doing without Monday night audio? What's that? All free?
"I'll say what we say each year," said Val Pinchbeck, the NFL's director of broadcasting. "The fan sitting at home, the person who does not go out to the park, will see in most markets upwards of 90 NFL telecasts free of charge--six hours every Sunday, all postseason games, all the road games of his favorite team, and, if they're sold out, all the home games.
"Now, if someone said to me, 'That's the most liberal programming of any sport on television,' we would certainly agree with that," Pinchbeck said. "It's reached the point where I think some fans feel it is their right to see the teams they want to see, and at the time they want to see them."
He laughed amiably.
We poor, misguided armchair quarterbacks just can't get anything right anymore.
Remember after the strike ended, some of us heard team owners say NFL franchises ought to do more for the fans than ever before? Well, among the things they did was black out the local markets for half of the 84 games played after the strike.
That was certainly more than ever before.
But they had no choice, of course, said Dallas Cowboys President Tex Schramm. "When we first came back, after the strike, we had two games, neither of which was sold out, and we lifted the blackout," said Schramm. "At one game, we had 14,000 empty seats, and the other game 17,000.
"After that, I said when we return home, we will go back to our normal policy," he said, and he was right. No TV, and the game--against Philadelphia--sold out by Saturday. Same thing happened against Tampa Bay.
I don't know about you, but I'm properly ashamed--living off the dole, watching football on free TV while others foot the bill.
Until we start paying our own freight, we fans at home will remain second-class NFL customers. But count on the NFL to figure out a way for us soon to stay home and pay at the same time. You've heard of pay television. The NFL has, too.
NBC is telecasting a Super Bowl this year distinguished largely by a lack of hoopla. Wait until after the 1987 season, when the NFL's charity--and its network contract--runs out, and the Super Bowl is distinguished by its disappearance from free TV.
It's all very simple. The stadiums--where ticket prices will be slashed by owners making fortunes on pay TV--will remain filled by people who can't afford cable: simple, decent folk much like today's free-TV viewers. And contrary to popular thought, the Super-Bowl-on-pay-TV concept will breeze through Washington, primarily because most members of Congress will by that time live in Crystal City, the fully cabled fortress of glass and concrete in Arlington--and the next home of the Raiders.