Striving For A Level Playing Field: Parity in the NFL and MLB: NFL Edition

Ben Whelan

One of the major goals of any professional sports league is to have a great deal of competitive balance. That is to say at the beginning of each season, a high number of teams have a legitimate shot to bring home a trophy at the end of the season. More commonly known as “parity,” competitive balance is in the best interest of everyone. It ensures that wherever you live or whatever laundry you root for, you’re never going to be down for too long.

Sure every team is going to have it’s ups and downs over time, but good competitive balance makes it so that you’re never out of contention long enough to lose interest in your team. Every league has certain measures in place to add some degree of competitive balance. Some do a better job of it than others, with the NFL being far and away the most successful.

Why, do you ask, should the NFL be held up above all others when it comes to parity? Since 2001 only four of the 32 NFL franchises have failed to make the playoffs. The Arizona Cardinals, Houston Texans, Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions missed the playoffs over this stretch not because they didn’t have a chance, but because there were really dumb people making really dumb decisions (See Matt Millen, The Bidwell Family, Charlie Casserly, and Tom Donahoe).

Granted, over that stretch there have been teams making multiple playoff appearances, but it’s not because those teams had more or better resources than everybody else, it’s because they played the system better and made better decisions. The point here is less about anecdotal evidence and more about opportunities inherent in the system used to set up the league.

The NFL system is designed for ultimate parity on the theory that the more successful professional football is as a whole, the more all teams will benefit. There are multiple safeguards in effect to make sure that this happens. There is the salary cap and the NFL’s television deal, which it derives almost all of its revenue from, is negotiated as a league and divided equally amongst all of the teams. Everybody has the same ingredients, it just depends on what recipe you use to bake the cake. Worst case scenario: Your franchise player gets hurt, you make some poor personnel decisions, or you hire Norv Turner.

The Indianapolis Colts’ recent success is due in large part to the fact that at one point they were bad enough to warrant the first overall pick. They used this pick to draft a guy named Manning who has more or less single handedly made the franchise relevant again. The Patriots are another good example of a team that was middling in obscurity and used the draft to build the Super Bowl machine we all know and love. Players like Tom Brady, Ty Warren, Vince Wilfork, Asante Samuel and numerous others were there for everyone to see. Most teams, if not all, had an equal shot at drafting these players, but chose not to.

Whatever the outcome, you still have a good shot to recover through the draft. You can’t hold every GM’s hand and make sure they don’t do something stupid. The point here is that everyone has an equal shot at landing a great potentially franchise changing player.

Whether you’re in Jacksonville or Green Bay, Nashville or North Carolina; if you’re a fan of the pigskin, you’ve got nothing to worry about. If your team is not good now, just wait one year, maybe two. As long as you have competent management, odds are things are going turn around for you in the near future. The same cannot be said for baseball fans in Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Washington D.C. or Tampa Bay, because fans are not going to sniff the playoffs there until the Yankees are pried from George Steinbrenner’s cold, lifeless hands. I’d plan vacations come October for the next six or seven years, because you wont need them.

By the way, remember those four NFL teams with recent playoff droughts? All of them except the woeful Buffalo Bills have winning records this year. Whether they will be hoisting the Lombardi trophy in Phoenix this year I couldn’t tell you, but at least they have the chance to compete.