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How Greed Can Kill the Golden Goose

The NFL has been affectionately referred to as the “Golden Goose” of the sports world because of it’s propensity to lay golden eggs.  The NFL is not only the most profitable sporting league in the world, but one of the biggest brands in any industry in the world.  To make a long story short, the NFL has ascended to heights that no sport has ever seen and while it is commendable, it also means they have a long way to fall down if things go bad.  It’s tough to envision things getting much worse than they are now.  The most profitable sports league in the world is shut down because the owners and players are unable to divvy up unreasonably obscene amounts of money amongst themselves.

I have heard many people say that the NFL is too big to fail and fans will flock back after a lockout, and that may be true.  I work in the financial industry and there were banks that were hailed as too big to fail as well, and we all know how that turned out.  The common thread amongst the failures was greed and don’t think that just because the NFL is a sports league it is immune to failure.

The owners and players are fighting over $9.2 billion dollars, in the worst economy since the Great Depression.  Everybody is making record levels of money on both sides and there will be more money coming when the economy rebounds.  However, the big tagline being thrown about is “growing the pie” and finding new streams of revenue.  This approach is the first domino that could topple the NFL.

The owners solution to growing the pie is the “enhanced” 18 game season, which the majority of fans and players are opposed to.  This should indicate that the 18 game season is a dead issue, but the almighty dollar has a way of swaying opposition.

18 games sounds great, more real football and two fewer preseason games, sure there are greater injury risks to the players but they’d be compensated for those risks.  What’s to lose?  The value of the game for starters.  The Lions went 0-16 in 2008, did they go winless because they didn’t play enough games to allow them a win?  No, they went 0-16 because they were a bad football team and if they had two more games to get a win they very likely would have gone 0-18.  Bad teams don’t get better by adding more games, and good teams won’t get worse by adding two more games.

If I play Kobe Bryant in one on one for 10 minutes I will lose, because I suck at basketball.  If you give me 20 minutes, I will definitely not win and I will most likely lose by even more than before.  The gap between his talent and mine doesn’t shrink because we play longer, in fact it widens because he is a better athlete and tires more slowly.  The same goes for the NFL, the gap between good teams and bad teams will widen leaving more meaningless games at the end of the season.  This is domino number two.

So now there are 18 games, but we still have meaningless games that fans don’t want because the Colts wrapped up the division in Week 14 and play their scrubs for four weeks.  The NFL starts losing revenue on those games because the ratings are awful, so they have to find a way to drum up more interest late in the season.  The next logical step is to create incentive for teams late in the season by expanding the playoffs.  With two more playoff spots available per conference, more teams will be alive in the hunt and fewer meaningless games.  Problem solved…until domino three topples.

Now the NFL has 18 games and 16 of the 32 teams make the playoffs, everybody is happy because there are more meaningful games in the regular season and a couple extra prime time playoff games that draw huge television ratings.  The only problem is these additions still don’t do anything to bridge the talent gap, they just reward teams that previously weren’t good enough.  If a team goes 8-8 for two years in today’s NFL, the coaching staff and front office are on the hot seat to make the playoffs in that 3rd year.  But if they are going 9-9 and making the playoffs each year, their seat is nice and cool even though the team still has a .500 record.  So while the upper echelon teams with elite GMs and coaches like the Steelers, Colts and Patriots continue to improve year in and year out, the 9-9 team keeps their coach and front office instead of firing them because they made the watered down playoffs.  On to domino number four…

So now you have a bunch of super teams that are still a cut above the rest, and a second tier that are good enough to make the playoffs every year, but rarely good enough to contend for the title.  So the first few rounds of the playoffs start taking a ratings hit because the super elite teams are playing the mediocre teams and the games aren’t competitive.  Now what?  Move the playoff games from the weekends to high volume prime time weekday evening television slots to boost the ratings.  The schedule maker has to avoid scheduling games up against big drawing shows like American Idol because the quality of the games hasn’t improved, so playoff games have to be scheduled against reruns or weaker shows to keep ratings up.

Pretty soon no amount of scheduling can hide the fact that the playoffs are one-sided because the level of competition is down, the same handful of teams win the Super Bowl year after year, the talent gap widens between the haves and the have nots rendering the regular season meaningless as it’s just a prelude to the playoffs when the real games start.  Revenue is down across the board and fan interest dwindles, the league starts having financial problems and soon there’s talk of contracting teams to remove the excess baggage and raise the level of competition back up and the days of the Golden Goose are long forgotten.

I know this sounds like a fairy tale and it would take years, possibly decades for this situation to play out, so why worry about it now?  I’ll give you one simple reason, this scenario already played out in some way shape or form in the NBA, MLB and NHL in the last several years which in no small part helped the NFL create it’s ability to lay its golden eggs.

The NFL is a giant amongst it’s peers because the decisions regarding the game were made in the best interest of the game, not by the money to be earned by stewards like Lamar Hunt, Dan Rooney and Wellington Mara.  Those men are gone and in their place are business men like Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder whose business acumen has not translated into success in football.  If they want to run their team like a business with the main goal of maximizing profits and winning as a secondary goal that is their perogative.  But to make decisions for the league based on anything other than what is best for the game and the fans will do nothing but harm the game and eventually bring the NFL back down to Earth, where the other three major sports leagues are trying to clean up the havoc their greed wreaked on their sports.

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