The NFL has a nearly perfect product right now, as evidenced by the estimation of Forbes' Mike Ozanian in 2013 that 23 of the league’s 32 teams—even perennial small-market losers like the Cleveland Browns—are worth in excess of $1 billion.
Football overtook baseball as the national pastime quite some time ago, and despite the conscience of the American sports fan drifting from performance-enhancing drugs to concussions the last few years, it remains light years ahead of basketball and hockey. An insatiable appetite for blocking and tackling allows an event such as the NFL draft, which features no blocking and tackling whatsoever, to generate talking-head rhetoric for months at a time.
A big reason for this gridiron dominance is the fact that each generation's attention span is getting progressively shorter, making it all the more difficult for the iPhone crowd to get keyed up for 162 regular-season baseball games—82 each for basketball and hockey. With only 16 games on the NFL schedule, starting off 0-2 in September can lead to dire straits come playoff time in January. Especially with only 12 teams (37.5 percent) qualifying for the postseason, as opposed to 16 (53.3 percent) for both basketball and hockey.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, speaking at a fundraising breakfast Friday in Tampa, expressed his desire to increase participation in the playoffs without necessarily diluting the product.
"We're very cautious on that," said Goodell, according to ESPN.com's Pat Yasinkas. "You want to make sure that you don't do that. We have 12 teams out of 32 that make our playoffs now. This would only take us up to 14."
"Parity" is a term that has become synonymous with the NFL in the era of the salary cap, making it financially impossible to fill a locker room with Pro Bowl-caliber players at every position, so Goodell believes the extra playoff participants would be genuine threats to hoist the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
"The competitiveness of our league, that's the difference to me," he said, per Yasinkas:
It's not just adding two more teams that didn't have a chance to proceed in the playoffs. That wouldn't be something that we're interested in. I think what we're seeing now is such a competitive league that a team that got in on the 13th or 14th spot has a chance to win it all.
What Goodell is discounting, however, is one of the very reasons there is so much competitiveness in his league in the first place: Even for quality teams, making the playoffs is no guarantee.
As a rabid sports fan who grew up rooting for all things Chicago—minus the Cubs, as I've always been a White Sox guy—never do I find myself watching a Bulls or Blackhawks game during the regular season. I don't flip that switch until the calendar hits April and the results have do-or-die consequences, as even Christmas Day hoops and New Year's Day pucks fail to pique my interest.
Even with Derrick Rose going down after yet another devastating injury and Luol Deng getting traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for next to nothing, no way were the Bulls collapsing to the draft lottery and missing the postseason altogether.
The defending-champion Blackhawks, much like the Miami Heat, could afford to spend the regular season coasting on superior talent, nursing minor injuries and being happy with any of the top seeds in their conference.
As a result, those 82-game marathons are little more than jockeying for position because the majority of the teams make the tournament, including an Atlanta Hawks squad that finished six games under .500 at 38-44.
The Baltimore Ravens, on the other hand, won the Super Bowl in 2012 yet stumbled to 8-8 in 2013—neither Ray Lewis nor Ed Reed was there anymore, plus Joe Flacco's new contract wrecked the club's cap space—and watched the playoffs eating crab cakes on their couches.
"The reality is there are a lot of teams that other playoff teams are afraid of coming in in those 13th and 14th spots," said Goodell in Tampa:
We're going to make it more competitive. I think that's the positive spot. That's what our competition committee, our membership, our ownership has all looked at and feels comfortable that, yes, it will be competitive.
Sure, the Arizona Cardinals were good this past season at 10-6, but if their efforts weren't enough to best the 13-3 Seattle Seahawks or 12-4 San Francisco 49ers in their own division, then rewarding them with a postseason berth would have devalued the regular season entirely.
The last thing the NFL needs is casual football fans waiting until the playoffs to turn on their TVs, which is exactly what I do with the NBA and NHL—my perception, right or wrong, is that the basketball and hockey regular seasons are borderline meaningless.
"What we're doing now is talking to partners, our networks and our players, and making sure that, when we do it, we do it right," said Goodell.
In other words, he'll do it the first opportunity he gets to incite another bidding war among the major television outlets and line the league's pockets with another billion or two.
The NFL has plenty of other problems to worry about right now.
The aforementioned concussion issue is only going to get bigger, no matter how many rules are put in place under the heading of "player safety." Stadium attendance has been stagnant for years, due in part to $75 parking, $6 hot dogs and $9 beers, per Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes, while watching from the comfort of home in front of 60 inches of stunning high definition is increasingly affordable. The league's police scanner is seemingly never devoid of DUIs, drug busts and domestic violence.
The season itself is perfect the way it is. Finding the balance between a meaningful regular season and a competitive postseason has already been achieved. Goodell would be wise to leave well enough alone.
But billionaires didn't get to be billionaires by turning down free money.