Every summer the NFL plays the same prank on its fans. It's called preseason football, and thousands fall for the ruse each year.
They buy tickets. They watch on TV. Some talk about it like it matters. Some even bet on it because they are bored and, well, they might have a problem.
But no matter how much everyone wants to pretend, no matter how much or how little the tickets cost, these aren't really games.
Watching is like wearing a "kick me" sign. Scam or rip-off may be overstating it. But are they games? No.
They are, at best, glorified practices.
The score is irrelevant. The entertainment value is dubious.
A joint scrimmage at training camp accomplishes much of the same thing.
With preseason football-a-palooza, the players fans care about most are mostly sideline spectators because, let's face it, the only thing of note that can possibly happen in one of these fake games would be to lose someone of consequence to injury.
Preseason NFL football is not really NFL football. More NFL football-like.
Spring training baseball at least provides a welcome respite from the winter blahs.
NBA and NHL exhibitions sometimes are staged in college towns and other locales bereft of major-league sports, lending an occasional air of novelty.
Preseason football is an opportunity to test the stadium public-address system, video boards and concession-stand cash registers while some hopeful contestants on the bottom rungs of the depth chart vie for final roster spots or a place on the practice squad.
Actual starters and many second-stringers, meanwhile, bide their time on the sidelines, enjoying the heat and humidity.
Paying attention to preseason football is like going to see "Hamilton," only with a cast of understudies and fill-ins not quite good enough to sing, dance or act professionally in a real production.
Oh, and they use only part of an actual script and song list because the director doesn't want to share what he truly intends to stage when previews are over.
Nice costumes and sets, though.
Want to know how much preseason NFL matters?
Three words: Tyler Bray, quarterback.
Bray has played in one real NFL game since the end of his college career at Tennessee in 2012. It was at the end of the 2017 season with the Chiefs. He threw one pass. It fell incomplete. He also had a handoff go awry and get run back for a touchdown.
Last preseason, Mitch Trubisky sat out three of the Bears' five exhibitions and threw just 18 passes. Backup Chase Daniel threw 74.
Bray had 97 preseason passes, more than Trubisky and Daniel combined. He played the whole exhibition finale because why not.
Then Bray was cut and assigned to the practice squad, which is where he's likely to go again this year before the season opener versus the Packers, barring something unforeseen elevating him from No. 3 on the depth chart.
Nothing against Bray, who has a role to play in the organization. You just don't see a lot of Bray jerseys in the stands.
Yet here he was leading something meant to represent the Bears offense in a largely meaningless exercise before a paying crowd.
"I was always ready to play," Trubisky said after one of the exhibitions he spent in bubble wrap a year ago. "I wanted to play and get those reps. But we've gotten a ton of reps in practice, and we're just going to continue to get ready for Week 1. We're just continuing to build chemistry on offense and moving forward and rolling as a team."
That's great. It makes a lot of sense. But what are viewers tuning in to see and ticket buyers paying to attend?
In college football, it all matters. Illinois will play Akron, Connecticut and Eastern Michigan to open the season. Even if those games don't count in the Big Ten standings, they figure in the overall record, which becomes relevant when the Illini win enough games for bowl consideration.
Admittedly, the NFL preseason is not as bad as it once was, but that's something one can say about plenty of things that remain quite awful.
The Bears (like some other teams) realized a few years ago they could stop demanding full price for these meaningless fashion shows by charging more for the regular season — a lot more when it comes to especially popular games, such as the Packers' annual visit to Soldier Field.
So the preseason bilking is not as egregious as it once was. But at last check, face value for tickets still available for Thursday's joint appearance with the Panthers ranged from $41 to $241, which remains a big ask for whatever it is the Bears plan to present.
It is telling that on the secondary market, even via the team's official Ticketmaster resale platform, tickets list for $20 or less — closer to reasonable for what's being delivered.
There was a time NFL teams, playing only 14 regular-season games, actually played six exhibitions, which boggles the mind (and probably bruised more than a few player brains).
Now the league is down to a standard of four while the season runs 16 games over 17 weeks.
Commissioner Roger Goodell has made no secret he's up for reducing the preseason charades to two exhibitions, but of course he also would like to see the season expand to 18 games.
The players union unsurprisingly is wary, full contact contributing to brain trauma and all.
But regular-season football is the league's bread and butter as well as its meat and potatoes.
Preseason football, meanwhile, is empty calories from which already wealthy owners squeeze extra cash. To consume it is to ask for more of the same.