Wednesday, 02 February 2011
In a recent segment from the show Real Time With Bill Maher, Maher brought up the fact that the NFL's salary cap rules are essentially a method of profit-sharing. Because of this, teams from small markets have a fighting chance to compete despite economic and/or geographic disadvantages. I was reluctant to bring politics into a blog for guys, but I figure the sports metaphor and timing shortly before the Superbowl make this appropriate.
You really can't deny that the NFL is socialist. At least, "socialist" as the tea party/Glenn Beck/right-wing/anti-government/cut-taxes-and-spending platform defines the word, not its real meaning (different teams are still at competition with one another for better coaches and players, meaning that they aren't really part of a cooperative system that shares publicly-owned resources). The New York Giants aren't allowed to spend their money at will on "resources" that will only benefit them. Nor does the money raised from advertising during the Giants/Cowboys game stay exclusively in New York and Dallas. The NFL manages the money all 32 teams "earn," and reallocates a portion as the commissioner sees fit, in a way that will benefit the entire league.
Teams are forbidden from spending above the salary cap, and are punished if they disregard this. Thus, their freedom to choose is not directly touched, but financial policies provide incentives for teams to do what's best for the league. Teams are also required to spend at least a certain amount, keeping everyone on a somewhat equal playing field.
Similarly, the teams draft in reverse order of how they ranked the previous season. The best team picks last, while the teams that really struggled get a shot at bringing in players with the potential to reverse their fortunes. The first team to draft may get a crummy player (Jamarcus Russell, anyone?), but that's on their poor scouting and bad decision-making, not due to the disadvantages they have no control over. Says Maher, "That's why the team that wins the Super Bowl picks last in the next draft. Or what the Republicans would call 'punishing success.'"
The reason the NFL is so great, in my opinion, is the fact that teams rarely sustain dominance for an extended period of time. Some teams do, and they really do deserve credit (even though I can't stand the Pats or the Steelers). But they also tend to crash hard when their time is up. Look at how baller the 49'ers were back in the day, and how terrible they've been since then.
Unlike baseball, which has no policies in place to level the playing field, the NFL is always competitive and is a place where anyone has a chance at success. I love baseball; I actually like it more than football as a sport. But, football is so much more appealing to Americans everywhere because the teams from Pittsburgh and bumble-fuck Wisconsin have a legitimate shot.
Now, to apply this to economics. It's really quite simple. Think of the small market teams as youngsters growing up in crappy neighborhoods (small market cities), with parents (fans) who are either unable or don't care to give them an upbringing that primes them for success. It's easy to see how this (admittedly overgeneralized) sect of society could easily become frustrated, disenchanted, and give up on the society they live in. Like the Kansas City Royals, who bring in huge amounts of revenue year in and year out, yet never produce, and never seem to pursue, a successful baseball team.
Obviously, not all small market teams are doomed to perpetual suckiness. Once in a while a 2003 Florida Marlins or a 2008 Tampa Bay Rays will beat the odds. But the success is never sustainable. Additionally, teams like this must take gambles to get there by trading away their future stars for a big name player that has a contract expanding at the end of the season (so that they don't have to pay full price). For example, in 2008 the Milwaukee Brewers traded away several of their most promising prospects for CC Sabathia, hoping to make a World Series run, but lost in the playoffs. The Brewers have struggled since then, and the next year the Yankees sign Sabathia as a free agent.
If the MLB were to limit the amount of money that the Yankees would spend, and require that teams like the Royals spend more, the Yanks would win less and the Royal would win more. (Notice how the correlation between spending and winning is actually quite strong in the graph for baseball, and it virtually nonexistent in the earlier graph about football). The Yankees would still probably be the more successful team, but the Royals would probably make a playoff run every now and then. KC fans would probably grow more interested in baseball, and be more supportive of the game (the economic system, and America in general, if you still aren't grasping this metaphor), like the way that denizens of KC, Pittsburgh, and Wisconsin really get into football.
Yankees fans would probably see this as a punishment to them, as "punishing success." George Steinbrenner MADE this franchise great through his own hard work. Sure, but now the next Steinbrenner can ride on his father's success. Even if the Yankees suck one year, the new owner can just spend money for a quick fix because he was "born" into ideal and near-perfect circumstances. Owners three-to-four generations from now can be dumb and undeserving, but as long as they possess even an ounce of competence they will be able to very easily run a great sports franchise that will continue to win rings and generate profits. It's about as unfair as some kids being guaranteed the American Dream because their great grandparents had the drive and determination to pursue that dream. Maybe they do deserve it, but maybe they don't. Is there any way to know for sure?
You see, for the country to reach its full potential, all youth and their talents must be cultivated. And for citizens to be happy with their nation and government, they must feel like they have a shot at succeeding. So go ask the folks in North Carolina if they are content with their position in the MLB. Oh wait, there's so few people in that state that it really has no chance at success, on a national level, unless some sort of policy is put in place to give them a shot. Which is why the NFL's Carolina Panthers exists. And, oddly enough, the Panthers didn't exist until 1995, meaning all the other teams made sacrifices (of potential players, draft picks, and league profits) to accompany this newcomer.
And, also strangely, the Panthers made it all the way to the NFC championship during just their second season in existence. In other words, they were given a chance to shine, and the entire league was better for it.
How about the fact that LA has two baseball teams, but not one football team? If football didn't share the wealth I am certain that at least one team would abandon their fans for the City of Angels, where there is more money to be made.
Now I'm sorry if this is upsetting to some people; I've been pretty clear about my political preferences. But the real point I want to make is not that capitalism sucks. It's that the NFL is great because of profit-sharing and policies that encourage competition through fairness, not unchecked freedom. Sure, you can still be a capitalist and love the NFL. But if you are, you should probably root for a big-market team and resent the league for catering to the small-market teams, or "freeloaders," and trying to give everyone a chance at success when others' fortunes are really no concern of yours. You should also be ready to tell fans of small-market teams that they and their team contribute nothing to the NFL, and that the league would be just fine if they were relegated to its cellar.
Are you happy about the way the NFL spreads the wealth, or are you more into baseball's laissez-faire model. And are you a fan of large-market or small-market teams? Do you think this influences your opinion?