This is the final weekend of NFL replacement games. But had the players not ended their strike, it is likely the replacement games would have continued the rest of the season with network coverage. Which tells us a little bit about the power of the NFL vis-a-vis the players union, its fans and the networks.

Here was the NFL, stripped of its marquee talent, responding by gathering together non-NFL players, calling it the NFL and insisting the networks show the games. And the networks, despite expressing some reservations about the sham, fell into line for one simple reason:

Nothing else could make as much money.

Sure, ratings were down. But the NFL promised the networks economic relief for lost advertising revenue. Anyway, not enough sponsors defected from the telecasts because viewership remained relatively high.

So, yes, television alone kept the replacement games afloat, but it was a basic business decision based on viewership and dollars.

Even with replacement quality being sold to us, no other sporting event could have delivered the ratings the makeshift NFL did. "Look at college football, boxing, golf, whatever," said one network official who asked that his name not be used. "They all draw single-figure ratings. Even with the decline, the NFL still was delivering double-figure numbers for us."

"You're sitting here and making evaluations of what else is out there," said another network official who asked anonymity. "You say, 'Okay, as long as I have enough economic relief {from the league}, this isn't a disaster.' And you ask yourself what else out there could deliver the same dollars. The answer is obvious by our actions."

Given that fact, it became virtually impossible for one network to drop Sunday afternoon NFL games if the other network was going to continue with them. After all, replacement NFL games would clobber replacement sports programming of any other kind. This was not a case in which CBS and NBC were acting in some monopolistic conspiracy; it was a case in which neither could afford to leave the NFL field wide open to the other.

That same type of thinking might have kept some advertisers in line, too. "A lot of advertising is done defensively," said Jon Mandel of Grey Advertising in New York. " 'If I don't have it, well, at least they don't have it' is the thinking. And if your competitor is advertising somewhere, then you think you've got to be there, too."

One other point: networks, essentially, are national distribution systems for programming. If affiliates don't like their offerings or think they can find better, they preempt network programming. And if either of the networks dropped NFL games on Sundays, many of the big-market affiliates probably would try to pick up their home-market teams instead of showing alternate network programming.

So, while networks publicly said they would evaluate televising the replacement games on a week-to-week basis, the likelihood was that those games would have remained on the networks the rest of the season.

"We probably can say that," said Steve Grubbs of BBDO ad agency in New York. "But who knows? Maybe, if more players didn't cross the picket line, then ratings would have continued going down and more sponsors would have defected."

Network officials are saying they expect the NFL to take care of their advertising losses. (But remember, these are "losses" relative to what the networks would have made with real NFL games; the ad revenue from replacement games still is greater than the networks would make with other sports programming.) The NFL, supposedly, will give the networks a rebate off its recently signed contract.

But next time -- the current contract goes through the 1989 season -- the networks almost certainly will be concerned with specific language that covers replacement games.

"There will be lawyers," Mandel said, "spending the next three years trying to figure out how to write a quality-of-the-game clause into the next deal."

Whether it's written in or not, it is clear that we are willing to watch sham games in large-enough numbers to keep the NFL and the networks in the black. That's an indication of the NFL's hold on us -- and of why it was able to put such a stranglehold on its players' union.