10 different teams have represented the NFC in the Superbowl over the last ten years. It has been 7 years since a team repeated as Superbowl champion. This competitive parity is loved by fans and the NFL has been prospering as a result, becoming America’s undisputed number 1 sport. This most recent Superbowl became the most-watched show in US television history, beating out last year’s Superbowl to set a new record of 111 million viewers.
Just like societies, the outcome you get in sports league is a result of the rules you put in place. You can design around the principal of equality, trying to give everyone an equal chance at success, or you can allow the advantages of geography and history to predominate.
Of all the professional sporting leagues in America the NFL has the most progressive structure, underpinned by a socialist split of TV revenue on an equal basis between all 32 teams regardless of the size of their local market. No one exemplifies the possibilities of this structure more than the Green Bay Packers.
The town of Green Bay, Wisconsin has a population of just over 102,000, or about 3,000 fewer than watched the Superbowl live at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday. It is amazing that it can sustain a professional team at all, let alone a champion. But with an equal split of the NFL’s billion-dollar TV deal and a salary cap which restricts all franchises to the same rough salary budget it is possible, and one of football’s original and most storied teams has continued to thrive into the present.
And it’s not just the Packers. The Pittsburgh Steelers may have been the losers of this past Superbowl but have won more Superbowls overall than any other team. Pittsburgh may be much bigger than Green Bay but is a very modest-sized city by sporting standards with a population of 311,000. Compare their success to their baseball brethren, the Pittsburgh Pirates.
The Pittsburgh Pirates last won a World Series in 1979. Unlike the NFL baseball is a world most Republicans would approve of. Teams in bigger markets reap disproportionately (or proportionately, depending on your viewpoint) the TV revenue associated with the sport, and are allowed to spend whatever they choose in the pursuit of success. This allows the New York Yankee’s to outspend the Pittsburgh Pirates by 5-to-1, over $200 million to about $40 million in 2010.
This does not necessarily condemn the smaller-market teams to perpetual disappointment – the San Francisco Giants won their first pennant in 2010 for instance, but after 54 years of trying. But almost everything has to go right for a small-market team to win while the powerhouses of New York, Philadelphia and Boston re-load year-after-year, expecting to win it all every time.
Many will argue ideologically that this is all well and good. That as in other sectors sports businesses should do what they must to maximize profits, that the Yankees should raise the revenue being in New York affords them and spend as much of it as they choose, overpaying for pitching as often as they like. But the end result is a less-valuable product than that created by the socialistic structure of Football. And this isn’t my opinion, this is dollars-and-sense and TV viewership.
Just as extreme inequality in a country eventually undermines the trust necessary to make capitalism function so too does extreme inequality in a sporting league eventually undermine the competition necessary to make the sport compelling.
And if all this wasn’t enough Green Bay’s actual ownership structure is more akin to Australian Rules Football teams than the businesses that surround them in the sporting landscape. They are in fact the only non-profit, community-owned major league professional sports team in the United States, which is what has allowed them to remain in Green Bay when so many other teams have been bought and moved.
So according to many on the right of American politics this makes not only America’s favorite sport but its current champion un-American. Awkward.