Parity in Pro Sports: How The NFL Turns Buffalo vs Kansas City into New York vs LA

In case you still had any doubts, the television placement of this weekend’s playoff games once again proves the NFL is the king of sport leagues.  Of the four time slots for this weekend’s NFL playoff games, the most watched time slot will be Sunday primetime. This marquee time slot is reserved for teams who league and tv execs believe will deliver the biggest audience. For most leagues this slot would be given to large market cities with their significant fan bases ie. New York and LA. The NFL, however, is not most leagues. While a small market play off matchup between Buffalo and Kansas City would depress other league executives, the NFL places this game between two star quarterbacks in its favoured time slot.   

This year’s MLB’s World Series between Arizona and Texas was a ratings dud. Oh, how happy the league and tv partners were that Ohtani signed with LA and not Toronto.  In the no salary cap league of Major league baseball, only the big market, high spending clubs should make the postseason and have success. But anyone who follows that sport knows that’s not the case. 

The strict salary cap and eye popping pot of money in the NFL allows its small market teams to keep their top talent signed and build a roster that can compete with anyone. There has always been a debate as to whether parity or super teams bring the most eyeballs.  The evidence lately has piled on the parity wins the rating game argument.  The NFL not only has the top rated sporting events on television, but it is the top rated event on all television.  Just look at this graphic from Sportico. 

Baseball is nowhere to be found. The super team premise is never tested in baseball, because the super teams rarely win it all.  So baseball suffers from both small market teams alienating their fans by not keeping their stars, but also from fans not being able to love or hate a perennial champion. Perhaps the Dodgers will fix that now, but recent history suggests they may still exit the playoffs quickly. 

The only league that gives the super team argument any support is the English Premier League and the other various National Soccer, sorry, Football leagues. Having perennial dominant teams doesn’t seem to hinder their popularity. It is worth noting that these leagues have no choice but to pay any price for talent. Salary caps don’t work in leagues if the players have options to go play elsewhere.  The NBA has tried with some success to have a quasi luxury tax system, but they haven’t reached the NFL stratosphere in terms of eyeballs.   

Parity created by salary caps, I believe, are only part of the story.  Next time I will get into the other reasons that explain NFL media dominance. 

More to come...

By Gregory Cawsey