The Myth of NFL Parity

by Bryan

American sports are supposed to be about balance. That’s the thinking, anyway. If every team doesn’t have a chance to win it all every five years or so, there must be something wrong with the system. Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness and a championship are things we believe to be human rights.

It’s galling, then, when your team is out of it from day one. Ask any Kansas City Royals or Pittsburgh Pirates fan how it feels, and they’ll tell you it’s downright un-American. They don’t have a snowball’s chance in August at beating the Yankees, Red Sox, Cubs, or Mets who toss around money without looking at the numbers on the bills.

To be fair, this works for baseball’s owners—the only people that the sport is set up to serve. Perhaps that’s why, despite record attendance and viewership, baseball can’t compete with football’s popularity. Or maybe it’s the nature of football that makes it so appealing: fast-paced and, with its once-per-week, short-season setup, well-suited to the short attention spans of the HD era. Finally, it could be the old saw that the NFL is the exemplar of “parity”—that American ideal that your team will, at some point soon, get a chance to win it all. What could be more compelling?

The problem is that the last part isn’t true: there’s no more parity in football than there is in baseball. And the problem might be even worse.

The difference is that while baseball fights over money, football teams stock up on brains. Managerially-speaking, baseball is an easy thing to master: get the best players, make sure they get along, and go. Football’s the opposite. There’s so much to know that’s exclusive to the sport that there are precious few people who have it down cold. There are rules on top of rules on top of rules for everything from the draft to the those the penalty mask penalty, and they change every year. Mastering it is a mix of game theory, attention to detail, and brute force. It’s like knowing the code for Deep Blue, or reading a map of Queens. It’s incredibly hard to do.

For all the talk of NFL parity,there have been more World Series winning teams (8) this decade than there have been Super Bowl winners (6). This year, while some new teams (like  the Vikings and Jets) have joined the traditional powerhouses (Colts, Patriots, and Steelers) amongst the league’s elite, there is a slew of teams that will be luck to win four games. The Chiefs, Browns, Raiders, Rams, Pathers and Lions are symbols of the futility of hope. What are they playing for? Not much. At least baseball’s fickle enough to give teams a glimmer of hope for a couple months. In football when it’s gone, it’s gone.

What’s the cause of this? The strength of organizations. The Steelers, Colts and Patriots understand how the game is run: they supplement star players with replaceable ones, and employ a buy-low, sell-high philosophy. It sounds easy, but it’s not, and it takes supreme know-how to pull it off at every level of your organization: CEO, GM, coaches, players. Everything is constantly in motion, and having everyone keep pace is what makes the great teams great. It’s anything but a numbers game.

That’s what makes it harder than baseball, and why football won’t even out anytime soon. In baseball, a good numbers man (or woman) can still exploit the gaps and give the little team a fighting chance. In football, it’s one giant gap to be exploited, and the people who do it at a championship-caliber level are far fewer in number than their baseball counterparts. Football’s not considered a thinking man’s game, but if you look beyond the line of scrimmage, it’s exactly that. It’s like 53-person chess. If you’re good, you’re good, and if you’re not, you’ve got a better chance hoping for a miracle at a Mets game.