Lockout: Comparing the NFL to Other Leagues, and Rooting for the Owners

jacobs-field.jpgThis was my pitch to friends and coworkers last month when trying to convince someone to fill the last open spot in my fantasy baseball league:

Football and basketball might not have seasons next year, so now’s the time to get back into baseball.”

It took two lockouts to convince my fellow fantasy gamers that baseball was worth paying attention to again.

The Indians were one game from the World Series just three years ago, yet have struggled to gain the fan interest enjoyed by a Cavaliers team now totally destitute without LeBron James, and a Browns team that’s been a shining example of unrest. What has happened to the baseball city of my youth?

Maybe we’re so hard on the Indians because we know they have to show us a winner first. Their game, in our eyes, is unfair. Cleveland fans aren’t stupid.

The Indians’ total player payroll is around $50-million; the Yankee’s is four times that at $201-million. Two players on their infield make as much as our entire team. That’s unfair, but I’m a Clevelander. There are hoards of Yankees fans out there powering a cable television empire who would disagree.

They aren’t cheating, that’s the system, it just works better for them.

But in our eyes, being able to outspend mistakes, retain any franchise player you develop, or sign any free agent you want, when 2/3s of the league can’t, including us, is a competitive advantage. All of that = unfair.

Why else would we flock to Cleveland Browns Stadium only to get kicked in the tummy any given Sunday? Deep down, we still feel that’s worth the gamble. Cleveland has a chance to compete every year, the Browns just blow it, but we still know their game is fair.

And hopefully football stays that way, because at the rate we’re going Cleveland’s road to a championship in the other sports is getting harder by the day. As NFL owners and players argue about how to split up their cash, count me as one fan (maybe the only one) who’s rooting for the owners to kick the players’ butts.

I have been thinking about it like this: professional baseball and football sit on opposite ends of the competitive balance spectrum, while basketball sits somewhere in the middle…

MLB = UNFAIR
Sustaining a winner in baseball is more about market location and payroll than how well an organization is run. The Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees have built great teams who’ve made the playoffs at least 6 times the past 8 years, but their payrolls are double and triple that of even the Atlanta Braves, who sit 15th out of 30 teams in payroll.

If teams like the Indians or Tampa Bay Devil Rays compete, then their window of opportunity is short. As soon as their stars mature, they’re off to New York, Boston, or Los Angeles.

Moreover, in baseball there is no salary cap, no franchise tag a team can place on a star player to keep him in town, and all players’ contracts are guaranteed.

The players enjoy a system without limits.

NFL = FAIR
The NFL by comparison is loaded with player limits. It has a salary cap, a franchise tag, and player contracts are not guaranteed. Markets like Green Bay and Pittsburgh played in the Super Bowl, and exactly half the teams that made it to the playoffs weren’t there the year before.

With the owners in power, the NFL seems to come down to how well a team is run. Do they draft well, are they well coached, is the organization strong from top to bottom? Your team can compete no matter what market you’re in if you do those things well. It’s just taken the Browns 12 years to get the memo.

NBA = Kinda FAIR, but moving towards UNFAIR
Here, one top-10 star player is everything. Any small market NBA team like Cleveland, San Antonio, Orlando, or New Orleans, can be successful if they have one, and there are rules designed to help teams keep them. In short, they can breach the salary cap to offer their star a “maximum contract,” for one year longer and for more money than other team could.

It’s no franchise tag like the NFL has, but it’s far better than anything baseball offers. The NBA has a salary cap, to level the playing field amongst the markets, yet, player contracts are still guaranteed.

Now, what could possibly have happened to make us think the NBA is sliding towards UNFAIR? Oh yeah, we just got the rawest deal of any raw deal in the history of sports. We drafted a Hall of Famer, but he left anyway, because now all the stars have to play together in super markets, on super teams, and win titles the easy way.

From Kobe and Paul Gasol in Los Angeles, to Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen in Boston. LeBron plays in Miami with Dwayne Wade and a tall effeminate lizard. Carmelo Anthony forced his way out of Denver to play in New York City alongside Amar’e Stoudemire. The clock is already ticking on Dwight Howard and Chris Paul moving.

This is the new NBA.

Here’s where the fun begins…

Maybe this new NBA is giving us a preview of what the post-lockout NFL would like if the players gained power over the owners. Maybe they would ruin the competitive balance we like.

In baseball, the players have all the power. With no salary cap, fully guaranteed contracts, and no franchise tag, they go wherever they please for top dollar and that usually means not Cleveland. The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

I should also note that baseball players, at the height of their power in this limitless system, eventually wound up destroying the integrity of their game = steroids.

In football, the owners have all the power, and they’ve built a system where every team earns a profit. Market size is not an advantage because players rarely have the freedom to make it one. By having a salary cap, non-guaranteed contracts, and the franchise tag, they are the complete opposite of baseball.

The NBA was right in the middle: market friendly with a salary cap, but player friendly with guaranteed contracts.

But now the star players have started to take over by attacking the NBA’s softer version of the franchise tag. Compelled to join an arms race of super teams, they’re holding their owners and fans at gunpoint to get more of what they want, where they want it, and who they want it with.   

Fans in smaller NBA markets, where there are less chicks and endorsement deals, are the ones suffering.

On top of that, NBA teams are losing money. NFL teams aren’t, and it’s because they have a good system. Parity has made it the most popular sport in America, and Cleveland.

CLEVELAND - AUGUST 21: Running back Lee Suggs #44 of the Cleveland Browns is welcomed into the Dawg Pound after scoring a touchdown during the second quarter of the pre-season game between the Cleveland Browns and the Detroit Lions on August 21, 2004 at Cleveland Browns Stadium in Cleveland, Ohio. Cleveland defeated Detroit 17-10. (Photo by David Maxwell/Getty Images)So while it may be politically incorrect to root for a billionaire owner over a millionaire player, I don’t care, I just don’t want the NFL to change. I’m not an owner or a player, I’m a fan, and the players having no power in football works great for me.

We have to stop comparing professional athletes to any other type of American worker, like the players are the NFL’s “workforce,” and everyone is free to decide where they want to work. First of all, that’s not how America works at all, and second, this is different anyway.

This is professional sports, games with rules that are the same for both sides, played by teams who make up leagues. Nobody can argue that a league with 6 teams is better than a league with 30, and without a leagues at all, there’s no professional sport.

Maybe it’s time to adjust our modern thinking, and realize limiting player freedom across the board would serve the greater good i.e. the masses of paying fans everywhere.

In limited freedom, the price of being a professional athlete is still a good one. You are born with physical talents for which you make your trade. These talents will pay you in the top 1% of any American profession, and in turn, your athletic career of 5 – 15 years would probably be in a set location. No one is saying you have to make that place your home, but your freedom to change employers will be limited to protect a league of limited teams from themselves, and ensure a quality product for all.

That’s still a deal anyone would take to be a player.

Hopefully the NFL lockout ends soon, so the fans can enjoy the one sport that still works for them.

Go Browns! (and owners too)

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