If Pete Rozelle had run football the way Vince McMahon runs wrestling, he would have scripted a season like this one. The departed NFL commissioner preached parity as the sine qua non of professional sports, and he’d have been hard-pressed to design a season that pitted more evenly matched teams. But judging from the relatively subdued interest in this year’s Super Bowl matchup, NFL fans are pining for the days when dynasties roamed the gridiron.
On its face, parity sounds like a good idea. After all, if people lose interest when their team’s cause is hopeless, increasing fan interest is just a matter of raising teams’ hopes. But that can’t be right. If it were, in a given year half of all fans would lose interest in watching professional football after November, when their teams fell out of the running. (Assuming that football fans’ loyalties are distributed more or less equally across all 31 NFL teams.) By the time you got to the playoffs, the number of fans tuning out would grow to more than 60 percent, and by Super Bowl Sunday you’d have lost around 94 percent of the fans.
Things don’t work that way. In fact, they work exactly the opposite way. Viewership rises during the playoffs. And the Super Bowl, which features only two teams, is the hottest ticket of all. Why? Because the NFL season is not just about your team, it’s a 31-team story in which some team finally succeeds. The problem with parity is that it disrupts the story’s continuity and makes for a terrible leaguewide plot.
At least, that’s the problem with the kind of parity that currently afflicts the NFL. There are actually two types of parity: across-year parity and within-year parity. Across-year parity decreases the possibility of dynasties, teams that dominate season after season. Within-year parity, on the other hand, increases the average team’s chance of making the playoffs in a given year. To maximize fan interest, the NFL should promote within-year parity while minimizing across-year parity.
For evidence of this, you need only look to the Dallas Cowboys of the mid-’90s, the team that brought you the three highest-rated Super Bowls in recent memory. By the Cowboys’ third victory, the NFC had won 11 straight Super Bowls, moving oddsmakers to favor the Cowboys by embarrassingly large margins. That didn’t stop Super Bowl XXX from being the highest-rated Super Bowl of the decade. Meanwhile, in basketball, think of the last great NBA season and you think of the championship-era Bulls—the greatest show on earth finally gets the team that can take him to the promised land, then he retires and comes back to do it all over again. The Bulls’ last championship was the highest-rated NBA Finals ever.
Contrast that with the past three NFL seasons, in which 24 of the 31 teams, or almost 80 percent, have made the playoffs. That kind of across-year parity, coupled with Super Bowl teams that flourish one season and crash the next (such as the Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, and St. Louis Rams), disrupts the meta-narrative that connects separate NFL seasons.
Which brings us back to this year. It’s true that the Ravens have some narrative potential—Trent Dilfer’s search for redemption or the compelling story of ex-murder suspect and defensive player of the year Ray Lewis. And the Giants could probably turn former drunk Kerry Collins into an inspiring story. But for that to happen both teams would have to stick around long enough for us to care. Thanks to parity, they’ll never get that chance.