Story lines drive drama. Super Bowl XLV doesn’t lack story lines; therefore, it doesn’t lack drama:
- Can Ben Roethlisberger find redemption from a self-induced tumultuous off-season in a Super Bowl win?
- Will a winning performance by Aaron Rodgers finally make Packers’ fans say, “Brett who?”
- Which defensive coordinator – Dick LeBeau or Dom Capers – will employ the Zone Blitz scheme more successfully?
- Which team’s fan base will have better representation at the game?
All of these examples titillate commentators and fans alike, either as a singularity or combined into a whole.
However, there is one storyline that is not being talked about: How are the Steelers and the Packers even playing in the Super Bowl?
Sports media has voiced very little about how amazing it is that two teams from such small markets, like Pittsburgh and Green Bay, are playing for the Vince Lombardi Trophy.
Perhaps, this story is not sexy, but it is definitely relevant and quite important, especially as the current collective bargaining agreement is set to expire in March and both sides are at an impasse.
Think about this for a moment: Green Bay and Pittsburgh are nowhere near the markets that Chicago and New York are, yet the Packers and Steelers were the favorites to win their respective conference championship games.
Which team has a better fan base?
The Packers beat the Bears and the Steelers beat the Jets, giving us not one, but two small market teams playing in the Super Bowl.
And, the Green Bay Packers, who are by far the smallest market in major professional sports, are, at this moment, the favorites to win the Super Bowl.
This is quite astounding in the current economic climate. But, it is not an anomaly. One only has to go back to last year’s Super Bowl to see the same thing. Indianapolis and New Orleans will never be mistaken for New York or Chicago.
How is this possible? Well, unlike other major professional sports (e.g. Major League Baseball), the NFL model doesn’t punish smaller market size, but rather rewards good ownership and smart management.
In the NFL, the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers can focus on putting the best product on the field without needing to be financially “creative” to do so.
Indeed, no one can accuse these two teams of buying a championship. That really isn’t possible under the NFL system.
Why? In the NFL, teams in all markets have a legitimate chance of winning as long as their organizations are run moderately well.
Unlike in Major League Baseball (MLB), NFL teams in smaller markets don’t have to rely on “Money Ball” strategies to succeed. In fact, the MLB and NFL systems are a study in contrast.
Whereas the MLB model is unmitigated mess and a sham because it fosters a perpetual caste system, the NFL model is a beautiful design because it makes market size a non-issue.
(In never ceases to amaze me that many supporters of baseball actually find the MLB model palatable. They are either naïve or disingenuous, but definitely not rational.)
Now, before you say “What about the Minnesota Twins or Tampa Bay Rays?” allow me to pre-empt: How many championships have those teams won in the past 15 years?
I’ll answer it for you – zero. Yet, in that same time span, in the NFL, smaller market teams, such as the Steelers, Packers, Colts, Buccaneers, and Saints, have combined for more championships than larger market teams , such as the Giants, Jets, Bears, Redskins and Patriots by a ratio of six to three.
In the NFL, salary caps and revenue sharing make any team a potential champion. Market size does not determine success.
And, that is where the drama enters this year: With the impeding expiration of the collective bargaining agreement comes uncertainty about revenue sharing and the salary cap.
That uncertainty may be putting the NFL’s successful model in jeopardy, with an owners’ lockout on the horizon. The tragedy of this potential outcome appears to be lost on ownership and, to a lesser extent, the NFLPA.
True, players in other leagues have made more money, but every other major sports league (MLB, NBA, NHL) has a solvency issue. The NFL does not. It is a cash cow that may soon be slaughtered by new money.
You see, the old guard of NFL ownership, a group of men of which Dan Rooney is a part, has slowly been replaced by a new crop of owners, led by ego-maniacs Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder.
The old guard built the NFL into the envy of the sports world; the new guard is more concerned with destroying the goose so that they can get a greater share of golden eggs.
If the salary cap and revenue sharing are lost, the league will flounder. Teams like the Packers and Steelers will become perennial also-rans among the larger markets of New York, Chicago and Boston.
We will see a football version of the Kansas City Royals. Perhaps, the Steelers will start resembling the Pirates and the Packers will be economically run out of existence.
If the current NFL model is allowed to go the way of the Dodo and be replaced with a system that allows Dan Snyder to spend his way to a title, that would be truly offensive.
So while the drama plays out both on and off the field for Super Bowl XLV, let us hope that some semblance of sanity takes root before next year’s NFL season.
Otherwise, Steeler and Packer fans, as well as other small market teams, will be living a perpetual “wait until next year” existence. That is a storyline none of us want to read.