The Myth of NFL Parity
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.
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There are plenty of small-market NFL teams that have strugged for years and/or have had very little genuine success over the years.
The Minnesota Vikings.
The Kansas City Chiefs. (Simmons pointed out their high-regular season win rate in the 90’s, nothing ever came of it)
The New Orleans Saints
The Jacksonville Jaguars
The Oakland Raiders
I don’t dispute that the lack of money hurts small-market teams in baseball, but I do think WAY too big a deal is made of a supposed lack of parity in baseball. There are fewer small-market teams in baseball, thus the problem is limited to a handful of teams. The Pirates, the Royals, the Reds, the Indians, the Orioles, I dunno, a few others. And even with this list, some of those teams have problems besides money.
Fair enough. If I’m using “parity” wrong, so be it. According to the ALL-KNOWING WIKIPEDIA, it is solely economic w/r/t sports, and that sort of parity exists.
And yes, that’s what I’m saying, as you quote above. I think the complexity of football is obscured by the sport itself, which appears to be very simple. I think figuring these things out is hard, and it’s rare to have someone who genuinely knows what they’re doing.
But yes, I sit at my desk and type corrected.
What you are saying amounts to this: some teams have better football people upstairs than other teams. This “unequal” dispersion of “brains” makes it hard for “dumber” teams to compete year in year out. While this may be true it has nothing to do with parity. You’re right when you say it’s a “myth” that all teams have an equal chance to win it all each year. Again, that has nothing to do with parity. Nobody ever said parity would kill dynasties, just that every team has an equal chance to develop their organization regardless of geography. That’s all it means. Parity in the NFL context has never implied equality for anything but economic resources. It may be the case that the Lions or Browns consistently suck and the Steelers and Pats consistently don’t suck. But this has nothing to do with parity being a myth.
I’m not sure you read my last comment, but thank you for yours. I just think that the myth that every team can win every year because of revenue sharing is complete B.S. Parity means equal (enough) dispersal of resources, not necessarily economic resources.
The first commenter is right though, the central tenet of NFL parity is that small market teams are able to compete with big market teams because of revenue sharing. The idea that parity doesn’t exist because some teams have more “brains” in their operation gets it exactly wrong. The whole point is to take money out of the equation so that the best organization has a chance to win, regardless of geography. If the teams with more “brains” upstairs win consistently we can say that the competition is level and parity is working. All teams have an equal chance to win based on the competence of the organization not because they happen to make and spend more money by virtue of their location. I’m not sure you understand what is meant by parity in the NFL context.
My point is the the brains gap is a bigger gap to overcome than the money gap is in baseball and thus, actual parity is not real, though economic parity may be.
Good article – i buy your point about the amount of brains necessary to run a good football team surpasses that of a baseball team.
I think the NFL defines parity differently than you do, however.
In the NFL – you will sometimes get a team that is far from a major market winning the whole thing (baltimore, indy). yes the organizations are strong, but in some cases, they have been strong only in recent times – Indy and NE, for instance.
the major media markets tend to dominate baseball – nyc , chicago, bahston.
so i think the parity comes down to the fact that in the NFL, you at least get a better chance than in baseball.
“so i think the parity comes down to the fact that in the NFL, you at least get a better chance than in baseball.”
…but you don’t. The author may miss what the NFL happens to believe parity is, but you missed the definition of the word chance.