What the NFL, NBA and MLB Can Learn From One Another
Nothing in this world is perfect. Sports and the various accompanying leagues are no different. Some are enjoying an overall popularity boost, such as Basketball and Football, while others have suffered a mild decline a la Baseball (I cannot comment on professional hockey as I have not seen actual viewership figures to reflect my assumptions).
All, however, can stand to improve, and some can do so by looking around at one another.
More than the payroll/market considerations, I think the biggest trouble-spot of Major League Baseball is its playoffs, the bread and butter of any league's excitement. With eight total teams that play at maximum 9.5 percent of their season in the playoffs (assuming two seven-game series and a five game), baseball has the worst playoff to regular season ratio of any sport to go with that incredibly long 162-game schedule.
For comparison an NFL team plays a maximum of 20 percent of their games in the playoffs, the NHL and NBA can top out at 25.5 percent of their total season within the playoffs.
So what are we to do? You cannot argue the playoff race itself makes up for it when you can generally predict four to six of those playoff teams pretty accurately at the halfway point. The league fervently does not want to expand the season to last longer, and a large gash to the regular season would never get by the player's association. What could be coaxed would be a compromise.
Reduce the number of games to 156, then increase the number of wild-card team to two, taking a page from the NFL (giving the best teams a bye would not be all that extreme, as a sweep played against a team with a seven game series has roughly the same amount of time off).
This extends the playoffs to a maximum of 13.3 percent of the season's total, nothing drastic to hit that 20 percent mark of the rest, but enough to hold excitement and anticipation a bit longer.
The other effect of this would be a more interesting wild-card race. One team may be a lock for that No. 4 seed, but the No. 5 could provide extra teams with incentive to fight for a playoff berth. They may not be world series contenders, but gives mid-market teams something to strive for.
It may also serve to reduce the number of player dumps at the trading deadline. With a five seed in the air does a Devil Ray team keep ahold of Scott Kazmir and try for the playoffs? You can't say for sure, but I contend that it would keep two to four additional teams (that is two to four in the AL and two to four in the NL) in the playoff hunt rather then the extra one per that the actual number of added slots reflect.
The possibility of a playoff series can be used as a reason to maintain a better payroll with the non upper-echelon teams, which makes these teams more competitive and could help smooth out the imbalance that is the current MLB. This to me seems the best way to achieve parity without an actual salary cap.
Parity in the NFL seems to be doing its job fairly well. Playoff turnover tends to be great (that is the number of teams in the playoffs that were not so the year prior).
After a bumpy start to the year, the half-dozen league dregs have proven themselves more able then one would have guessed two to three weeks ago (not powerhouses but at least competitive). So where does the NFL need to improve? Here we take a page from the NBA.
A rookie wage-scale would do wonders for a league where first round draft picks can command massive salaries that bog teams down for several years. If you whiff on a top three or four draft pick in the NFL, the hard salary cap means that team is unable to try and make itself competitive via the free agent market.
Unless a team has a specific player that they want without question, it is preferable to hold onto a five, six, sevenish pick rather then a one, two, or three.
This allows room for veterans to be signed, teams can pursue other options sooner if a player is not panning out, and teams do not feel burdened by a number one pick. This means teams stuck in long term ruts (Raiders, Lions) are much better suited to turn things around and grow competitive.
A few underperforming veterans may gain some unwarranted salary bloat from this, but I would take that knock over $60 million for a guy to spend two years losing and two years riding the bench.
As an afterthought this is more personal 'wouldn't it be fun' more than a genuine way to improve the NFL; the notion of an NBA-esque draft lottery. I think it would be a fun wrinkle to drum up even more offseason interest when you look around to see what of the bottom 10 teams will end up drafting where.
Obviously, the odds favor the 32nd team to get the No. 1 pick, but things can move around and become fluid, a lucky draw with a team gaining three-four-five spots could help spark interest from an apathetic fanbase.
The luxury tax/flex salary cap is a nice touch. The draft and rookie wage scale is well handled. The playoffs are lengthy and exciting. So where does the NBA look for betterment? Major League Baseball and its farm system.
No not three separate leagues stocked with a vast array of guys who will probably never see professional game. But a single more established league (not the developmental league or European pro basketball) to help guys improve. With college seniors becoming an endangered species, it no longer works as the primary source to groom young players and showcase talent.
With a true minor league setup, where players can be drafted or signed to a specific team, then placed in the minor leagues to develop, with the capacity to be called up at a moment's notice, guys can grow hungry to prove themselves and work on fundamentals. Where would you rather see a guy that is raw, talented, but not NBA ready?
Languishing on the back of the bench, out of the rotation getting five to six minutes every two or three games? Or would they get much more out of 30 minutes a night on minor-league squad where they get a chance to prove who they are?
With the fewest roster spots of any sport, opportunities can be missed when a good team has its best eight guys clicking. This also gives a good place for guys with longer-term injuries (10-20-30 games) to test out their health and see if everything is where it should be before jumping into the rigors of an NBA game.
A better minor-league system can also mean guys cannot assume they own a position, forcing players to work a little harder and put in that extra effort so they don't get demoted in favor of a young guy working his butt off to get that call up. This can help ward off a little bit of the me-first team-last attitude that hurts so many clubs.
So there you have it. When professional sports want to see where they could be improved to make the league a better overall product, rather then look from within, why not examine the best of what makes other sports shine, and work those methods into their own league to maximize the appeal of a given sport.
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