The Journal Fumbles

One of the hallmarks of modern punditry–maybe of all punditry–is the unsupported, all-supporting statement that sounds plausible at first glance but that upon closer inspection turns out to be equally plausible if its terms are reversed. (And yes, you can include that sentence, although I’m not sure what reversing its terms would mean.) Almost any essay on the supposed differences between men and women will provide you with a host of examples of this phenomenon, as will almost any essay on the evils of celebrity culture or modern advertising. But until last Friday, I wouldn’t have thought the economics of sports was fertile terrain for these kinds of pronouncements.

What changed my mind was Friday’s front-page story in the Wall Street Journal on the slow, imperceptible yet apparently unarguable decline of the National Football League’s popularity. The article as a whole smacks a bit of an argument in search of evidence, as we learn that 10 NFL teams failed to complete a two-point conversion this year and that only 80 percent of kickoffs were returned (i.e., the game is more boring than it was). Besides that, field-goal kickers are too good, and there was one more penalty a game this year than last. Of course, the television networks are spending more money than ever on football, and broadcasting more of it, but somehow that too is evidence not of the game’s popularity, but of the numbing of fans’ sensibilities.

But the oddest contention in the whole article is that because the NFL has a strict revenue-sharing scheme and helps losing teams by giving them easier schedules the next year, it’s damaging the game by destroying “one of [its] most compelling features: dynasties.” In other words, because it’s now harder in the NFL than in other sports for one team to dominate year after year, fans are growing disillusioned.

Now, this is a fascinating idea. In every other pro sport, fans and journalists and owners (at least during labor disputes) agonize over the fact that the rich teams just seem to get richer, and that it appears to be easier and easier to buy your way into a championship game. Since in every major sport there are close to 30 teams, each with a geographically-sensitive fan base, people tend to worry about a system in which one or two of those 30 teams wins year after year, imagining–as well they might–that having a perennial loser as your home team is not the average fan’s idea of fun.

But apparently all this agonizing is wrong. The NFL, after all, is the one league that’s gotten serious about parity. Its revenue-sharing plan is a model for every other league–if the NBA had revenue-sharing, the owners’ whining during the recent lockout would have been more justified–as is its canny use of the schedule to ensure competitive balance. As a result, Atlanta was able to go from winning seven games in 1997 to the Super Bowl this year, and expansion teams–which in the NBA and in baseball traditionally struggle for many years before even making the playoffs–are able to move quickly into the top ranks. Fans are less likely to see blowouts–“on any given Sunday” has never been more true–and more likely to entertain playoff dreams about their home team. Might this have something to do with why someone just bought the Washington Redskins, who have set new standards in futility recently, for $700 million? If the Journal’s right, I guess not.

Now, even though I lived in Connecticut, I grew up as a Dallas Cowboy fan, so the idea that there are teams with national identities is plausible. And in certain sports, including most obviously the NBA, it’s probably true that geography determines loyalty less than it once did. (Yet another Jordan effect.) But every professional sport faces the same dilemma, which is that there is a finite amount of talent available, and that if certain teams acquire too much of it, the level of the game as a whole drops. As a result, even though any one team has an economic incentive to buy up everyone in sight, the teams in common are economically better off if talent is evenly distributed. The only way the Journal article makes sense is if fans want the level of play as a whole to sink just so one team can win four Super Bowls in a row. Now, maybe that’s true, but I don’t see any evidence. With revenue-sharing and parity, the NFL has shown that sports actually can be economically rational at times. I hope it continues.