You can come up with a lot of reasons for why the NFL is so successful--certainly the fact that the sport is ideally suited for television doesn't hurt, and the fact the rhythm of the sport makes one game a week the right amount also helps. Fans can be focused on one single opponent all week long and watch the game on what's typically a day off of work. The fact that the NFL is situated right in the midst of the wealthiest economy in human history only adds to its moneymaking possibilities.
All are valid reasons for the NFL's success, but there's also a fourth--in the NFL everybody has a reasonable chance to win the Super Bowl. Revenues are shared equally among the 32 clubs, so no one can spend their way to a title. There's a salary cap in place and teams have the ability to "franchise" a player, a system that guarantees the player steady raises, while giving the team the ability to lock up a player that's a cornerstone of the franchise. This system stands in sharp contrast to major league baseball, where big market teams need only bide their team before picking off the best players in the smaller markets.
Now we head into the offseason with a looming clash between the owners and players, as a new labor agreement is up for renewal. The players want a bigger piece of the pie, the owners don't want to give it. Everyone is prepared for a drawn-out struggle and the owners are prepared to lock the players out of camp next season if an agreement isn't reached. A lack of an agreement leads to an "uncapped" situation, where every team can spend what they want.
The players are right to want a greater share of the pie. Why is that NFL players--who've been cooperative with ownership and have helped produce the astonishing success known as the NFL-- are generally paid less than baseball players who have been nothing but confrontational over even the most minor changes? Add in the fact that football careers are much more tenuous than baseball ones and you can understand the players' position even further. Stars get extraordinary money no matter what the sport--but a mediocre second baseman in baseball has a much better chance at big money than a quality noseguard in football and that's something that needs to change.
We can only hope the players realize that as tempting as it is to want a complete open market, this would only hurt the long-term success of their league. We have to hope the owners realize that players aren't going to care about long-term success if it's only about lining their bosses' pockets. I'd like to see the owners raise the cap, kick in more to general union funds that take care of retired players and just in general realize that if they take a confrontational approach they're going to end up like Major League Baseball--in a state of constant tension with their employees and moving towards a system that rewards the ability to spend rather than the ability to evaluate and develop talent.
I'm optimistic about the outcome of the tumultuous offseason ahead, if only because the devastating impact of the 1994 MLB and the lengthy NHL strike are going to be on everyone's mind. But if it doesn't work out well, and we head into a future with a completely different economic outlook, it will be more than a little ironic that the last Super Bowl of the Golden Age was won by the smallest market in professional sports, the community-owned Green Bay Packers.
Dan Flaherty is the editor of the Sports Notebook Family, published through the Real Clear Sports Blog Network, offering daily commentary on the NFL playoffs and coverage of college basketball.