Exhibition games have been played in Professional Football since the 1920s. 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. These games might be played before, during or after the teams’ regular seasons. The quality of the sport during this period was such that there was not much to be seen different in an exhibition game or a regularly-scheduled game. But the players were just as competitive, and the fans demanded their money’s worth. The only restriction was a major one: all games played against league opponents were considered regular season games, meaning only games played against teams from outside the league could be considered true exhibitions (the Staley Swindle of 1921 was one notable implementation of this rule, which ended up impacting who won the championship that year). This rule was changed in 1924, which set a firm date for the end of the season and declared any games after that point to be exhibition games.
By the 1960s, teams in both the NFL and the American Football League began playing exhibition games toward the end of training camp and before the regular season, to acclimate players to game conditions. These games were priced well below the cost for regular-season games, and in some cases were “intrasquad” games, in which both offense and defense were made up of home-team players. Team owners realized modest profits from these games, because the players were still being paid only training camp per diem, so any game proceeds went strictly to management.
With the AFL-NFL merger of 1970, Professional Football 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. For several years through 1977, the NFL season consisted of 14 regular season games and six exhibition games, usually three at home and three away, with some played at neutral sites. Starting in 1978, the regular season was expanded to 16 games, and the exhibition season was cut from six to four games.
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 in the exhibition season did not count “against them” when they went on to become the first team to lose all of their regular-season games since 1976, 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 63 yard mark set by Tom Dempsey and later by Jason Elam in the regular season.
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.