How the NFL Became the Most Competitive League in All of Sports

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How the NFL Became the Most Competitive League in All of Sports
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Does the best team win the Super Bowl?

It seems like a silly question, right? Compared to the NCAA's BCS system, the NFL playoffs are a sports fan's dream. Sure, there might be a couple of San Francisco 49ers or Denver Broncos fans that would argue that their teams were better and just had things go the wrong way (or had a bad call). By and large, however, most people seem to agree that the Super Bowl is a pretty efficient way to figure out which team is the best in the NFL. 

In the NFL's golden age of parity, that might not actually be the case.

Think of it this way, though: Is there any doubt that Alabama is the best team in college football? While the BCS has plenty of flaws and probably doesn't contribute to Alabama's dominance (correlation and causation are vastly different), we can't point to any team out there that could even touch Alabama's level of superiority over the past couple of years.

Let's look at the NBA. Think another team out there has a chance of beating the Miami Heat until (potentially) the "Big Three" gets broken up in 2014? Considering LeBron James and company have 23 straight wins as of this writing, I'm going to go ahead and call that one a "no."

That brings us back to the NFL, which can't seem to buy a dynasty if its life depended on it. Alabama wins because of its fantastic coaching. Bill Belichick hasn't won a Super Bowl since 2005. The Miami Heat win because of their amazing superstars. Adrian Peterson has never won a Super Bowl.

The only major American league that comes close to the NFL's parity is Major League Baseball, and its parity seems to be a more recent occurrence. Gone are the days when the New York Yankees could just buy a World Series (only one in the last 12 years!). It's worth noting that ESPN's Jason Stark writes a yearly blog post about MLB having more parity than the NFL, and (as always) he's very convincing.

Still, it's difficult to imagine the Baltimore Ravens winning a seven-game series as convincingly as the San Francisco Giants did this past year. Would the Ravens have even won a three-game series against the 49ers, Broncos, Patriots, Packers, Seahawks, Falcons or Texans? Possibly, yes, but it's not exactly a certainty. 

Parity reigns in the NFL, and the league wouldn't have it any other way. Parity is the function that keeps teams like the New York Jets in the playoff hunt while they butt-fumble their way to obscurity. Parity is the idea that the Indianapolis Colts can be a playoff team just months after having the first overall pick. Parity allows teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots to sit on the cusp of greatness for years but also allows other teams to keep them from it. 

While the Ravens might not be the picture of dominance, they could certainly be the NFL's poster child for parity—a team with superstars injured throughout the season, aging impact players and a quarterback to whom no one previously wanted to give the time of day.

So, how did the NFL come by all that parity?
 

Going clockwise, each team beat the team next to it in 2012. Image credit: Reddit user Lvl9LightSpell. Original design by Reddit user danchan22.
The Ultimate Farm System—College Football

A big reason for NFL's parity has to be the feeder system for talent and the method in which that talent is brought to the teams—college football and the NFL draft.

The draft is the great equalizer for teams. It's almost a game within itself. Teams that are terrible on the field but "win" the draft can immediately see their futures become bright (see: 2012 Colts and Redskins or the Matt Ryan-led Atlanta Falcons).

It makes success and failure in the NFL a function of skill—whether coaching, scouting, team building, etc.—rather than market size or marketing ability. The New Jersey Nets can change the direction of their franchise by moving to Brooklyn, but there wouldn't likely be any impact if the Jacksonville Jaguars moved to Los Angeles.

Of course, other leagues have drafts as well, and the NBA's lottery system might be even more efficient at spreading out talent fairly (assuming it isn't rigged by David Stern, as the back corners of the Internet tend to think). MLB even has 50 rounds compared to the NFL's seven!

The success of the NFL draft has a lot to do with the success of college football. How much different would the NFL draft look if 19-year-olds could be drafted right out of junior league like the NHL or after a single year of college like the NBA? What about straight out of high school like MLB? Worse yet, think about the NFL's parity if the best teams could lure top grade-school talent like European soccer clubs!

College football isn't just a feeder system—it's the perfect feeder system. The NFL has engineered a cottage system around the draft that starts with near-perfect communication and cooperation between NFL scouts and college coaches (some scouts even have keys and 24-hour access to college facilities). Note that while agents are called "pimps" by coaches like Nick Saban, the scouts are given unfettered access.

The system that the NFL has built around the draft continues to produce events like the All-Star games (Senior Bowl, Shrine Game and others) that other leagues may never come close to duplicating. The NFL combine has imitators, but never duplicators. The pro days and individual visits are similar to what other leagues do, but institutionalized to such a degree that they're almost impossible for even the worst of teams to mess up (looking at you, Matt Millen).

The draft doesn't just reward the worst teams, there's even a way to help teams that "lost" in free agency. Compensatory selections allow teams to acquire draft picks based on the value of the free agents that left town. This counter current against rewarding the worst teams may allow young and talented teams like the San Francisco 49ers to stay on top for even longer, but it also makes it less advantageous to spend big in free agency.

 

Hard Salary Cap Means Little Room for Dynasties or Gambling

Unlike other leagues, the NFL has a hard salary cap. That means that a team cannot spend without abandon as in MLB (or in soccer). Because it is a "hard" cap, it means that a team cannot take the calculated risk to pay luxury tax as in the NBA.

The salary cap is collectively bargained and tied to league revenues. As long as the NFL continues to be successful, players will continue to get the share that they're due.

Imagine a world without an NFL salary cap. Is there any doubt that an enterprising owner like Jerry Jones wouldn't jump at one of the top free agents every year? In reality, the Dallas Cowboys have been awfully quiet in free agency this year even though they've switched schemes and should be bigger players.

Think Rod Marinelli wouldn't have loved to reunite with Cliff Avril in his Tampa 2? The Cowboys didn't have that kind of money, however, even though Avril was a steal for the Seattle Seahawks.

That's the salary cap at work.

Even more important in terms of parity, the NFL has a salary floor. Teams cannot purposefully bottom out to minimize costs. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had tried in the Raheem Morris era and even had the benefit of an uncapped year to do so. Their efforts pale in comparison to similar fire sales by teams like the Miami Marlins or the Washington Wizards.

These efforts keep teams in the general vicinity of one another in a system where the Minnesota Vikings and Detroit Lions can be terrible one year and playoff teams the next.

This system also benefits long-term building plans and teams that see those plans through. Look at the teams that are continually laughingstocks of the NFL—notably the Detroit Lions, the Cleveland Browns, the Arizona Cardinals and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Save the few years of Buccaneer tanking already mentioned, those teams suffer from constant change more than anything else.

The teams that are successful long-term? Think about the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have had two head coaches throughout the entire lives of many of their fans. The New England Patriots have kept Bill Belichick around for 13 years. Ozzie Newsome has been running the Ravens front office since they moved to Baltimore!

A team like the Denver Broncos can't gamble on a player like Peyton Manning without giving up some of their building blocks elsewhere. As Broncos fans clamor for better defenders, they have to live in the reality of a system that leaves finite money for other needs and wants.

The L.A. Lakers gambled (and lost) on bringing in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash to help Kobe Bryant win another title. No NFL team could bring in Calvin Johnson and Adrian Peterson to help its star quarterback.

Furthermore, when a team does gamble in the NFL, "dead money" (or cap space taken up by players not on the roster) is often an incredible penalty.

 

Revenue Sharing

The most important reason that the NFL maintains parity is due to revenue sharing.  

This is almost directly tied to the same principles as the salary cap and many during the recent CBA negotiations pointed to issues with revenue sharing being as central to some owners' concerns as the division of revenue with players.  

In an article for "Real Clear Sports," Tim Reuter writes this about revenue sharing:

Speaking of economics, the most important part of parity’s costs is revenue sharing. Admittedly, the NFL has a better track record than its peers. The salary floor prevents NFL owners from pocketing revenue-sharing money, as in MLB where the Pittsburgh Pirates lose for two decades yet ownership turns a profit. Additionally, small-market teams such as the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints have succeeded, unlike their NBA counterparts.

Now, ironically, Reuter is actually writing the article to decry the NFL's pursuit of parity and goes on to talk about the Lions' years of mediocrity while the team still turned a profit. So, it's worthwhile to note that this isn't to call the NFL's system perfect (no system is), but the system is clearly working.

What revenues to share! The NFL's last set of TV deals exceeded $20 billion and project to be even higher next time around as it leverages second-screen ability, full-season packages (with DirecTV or someone new) and new market dwellers like NBC Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and our own Turner Sports.

That number could go even higher than projected if someone overpays to bring Thursday Night Football off of NFL Network—pure profit.

When teams like the New York Giants and Cowboys get added benefit from being in prime time almost every single week, they share the monetary rewards with teams like the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs.

The Charlotte Bobcats and Kansas City Royals are considered "small-market teams" by every definition in the book, but the Panthers and Chiefs have incredible value in the exact same markets. That's the overall power of the NFL and the overall power of revenue sharing at work. It contributes to the parity that the NFL enjoys, and the Panthers and Chiefs could both easily make the playoffs in 2013, 2014 or beyond.

The Bobcats and Royals could certainly make the playoffs in their respective leagues as well. But do you think the path is truly just as easy to traverse? Together, those two teams have zero division titles between them since 1985. The small-market Chiefs and Panthers have 11 between them.

Meanwhile, the Panthers can even sink toward the bottom of the NFL and still turn a profit (even if they pretend they didn't).

Together with the draft and salary cap, revenue sharing has kept the NFL as truly a sport that can be won on "any given Sunday." Any team can beat any other team, and most teams have a shot to make it to the playoffs if they make the right offseason moves.

 

Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.

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