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High Cost of NFL's Worship of Parity

It is remarkable how much the NFL has achieved regarding competitive balance. The NFL has a relevant regular season, an annual playoff turnover rate around 50percent, and at least one Super Bowl appearance for every team except four. Furthermore, the embarrassing franchises are kept out of the spotlight barring epic futility (the winless 2008 Detroit Lions) or public relations disasters (Bottle-Gate in Cleveland in 2001). No other pro sports league has attained that balance.

But that success does not come cheaply. Parity has a price, even a subtle one. The difference between efforts to generate parity in the NFL versus the NBA is visibility of costs. The NBA’s competitive dysfunction is on display for public viewing. This is not true for the NFL where the benefits of parity appear in the standings and the costs are obscured. Indeed, any discussion of costs needs to turn away from the standings and toward this question. Can pro football still change dramatically and thus elevate competition higher? 

The answer is yes and no. Innovating usually leads to winning. Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense, predicated on short passes that both controlled the clock and stretched the field horizontally, brought five titles in 14 years to San Francisco. But Walsh’s success had other beneficiaries, such as defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, who designed the Zone Blitz to counter the West Coast Offense. LeBeau took his Zone Blitz to Pittsburgh, and his defenses have powered the Steelers to four Super Bowl appearances and two titles since 1992. Both ideas are now NFL staples and proof that innovative forces improved competition, and thus created a better game.

However, it is possible the rate of change is slowing. A second burst of offensive creativity followed the West Coast Offense in the 1990s. From 1990-1993 Jim Kelly’s Buffalo Bills reached four Super Bowls by confusing and wearing down defenses with a no-huddle attack. Six years later, the “Greatest Show on Turf” St. Louis Rams racked up points by spreading out defenses and throwing deep. Along the way, fans saw potent quarterback and wide receiver tandems such as Randall Cunningham and Randy Moss in Minnesota circa 1998 light up the scoreboard. 

Since then NFL offenses have grown in complexity while the QB and WR positions have gained importance. But, the prolific offenses in New England or New Orleans under Tom Brady and Drew Brees do not appear markedly different from Kurt Warner’s Rams. It is possible that today’s talent is greater than ever. But that point invites another question. What happens when the current crop of Hall of Fame QBs retire? Will a new generation, perhaps equally talented at running the ball as throwing it, revolutionize offense? The success of 2012 rookie QBs Andrw Luck, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III might suggest so. But for now, it is worth asking if the NFL is likely to reach new competitive heights in the near future?

In this writer’s opinion, the NFL can have better competition or greater parity, but not both. First, the assumption of parity as a good thing limits development. Encouraging parity invariably begins from the presumption that a blueprint for success exists, and becoming competitive is a matter of copycatting. This works up to a point. Bad franchises can use the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers as a model, but those teams already have the requisite personnel in place. And even if a bad team transforms into the Packers with an elite QB and top-flight receivers, that squad has merely equaled instead of overtaken the best franchises.

Second, mimicry done en masse is possibly self-defeating. It is hard enough to build a winning team, but if everyone follows the same model then the costs of acquiring pieces for a proven system skyrockets. Just ask the Oakland Raiders, who traded a first-round pick in 2012 and a second-round pick in 2013 for Carson Palmer, the Cincinnati Bengals' former franchise QB who “retired” after the 2010 season. The Bengals made off with loot, and playoff appearances, while the Raiders finished 8-8 in 2011 and 4-12 in 2012. No amount of insistence on parity can overcome the laws of economics, notably supply and demand.

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.

However, spending money does not ensure success. Doling out cash to the incompetent will not produce success, and it can have detrimental consequences. Namely, revenue sharing saves bad owners from losing the requisite amount of money to force a sale. It also disempowers fans, since most revenue in sports comes from television deals: fans’ refusal to fill the stands minimally impacts a franchise’s balance sheet. The resulting situation is lose-lose, such as in Detroit.

The Ford family’s 51 year ownership of the Detroit Lions has yielded quite the ledger. The Lions have one playoff victory against several historical failures; three seasons without a road victory (2001-2003), the worst winning percentage over seven years (.271, 2001-2007), and the winless 2008 season. Fans protested by not buying tickets, home games were blacked out on television, and it all came to naught. Revenue sharing negated an inevitable sale, the Fords keep turning a profit, the fans continue suffering, and life goes on.  

The Lions are an extreme example, but mediocrity exists across the league. The Buffalo Bills, Cleveland Browns, and Oakland Raiders are all a decade removed from a playoff berth. Others, such as the Cincinnati Bengals, are 15 years plus between playoff victories despite sporadic regular-season success. In a league with a near 50 percent playoff turnover rate yearly and frequent postseason upsets, it is hard to believe the ongoing futility.

The NFL is the top sport in ratings and revenue because people demand the product. But no one should mistake the NFL’s competitive balance for the best the sport can offer. It is not a mark of honor to have a slim margin separating teams because everyone is following the same model. Nor does the sport benefit by keeping bad owners in place such that a whole generation of fans is lost while William Clay Ford collects a check from the league office. 

An NFL that keeps innovating is good for everyone; owners, television execs, players, and the fans. A good place to start is by discarding mistaken notions about the importance of parity. Parity hurts bad teams as much as the good ones. It is time to retire the idea and bring on the next evolution of football.

Tim Reuter writes on structural components in sports that impinge on or facilitate competition. He may be reached at tjr2118@gmail.com.

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