If you popped your television on to take a quick study break last week, chances are you instead wound up being glued to invigorating sports action for hours, while your notebooks remained blank and your textbooks were ignored. At the beginning of the week in baseball, the economically challenged Oakland A’s hit game-winning home runs two days in a row en route to setting an American League record of 20 straight wins. At the end of the week, the NFL opened the season in thrilling fashion, as 10 games were decided by less than a touchdown, including three overtime contests. The question is, which is the better sport?
As MLB came within mere hours of a ninth consecutive work stoppage this summer, many experts claimed that the popularity of the NFL had never been higher, while MLB was a complete mess. How could they be wrong? Television ratings are high, there are sellouts in stadiums throughout the NFL, and the league is so competitive that the last three Super Bowl winners have risen from below .500 obscurity the prior year to claim the Vince Lombardi trophy.
The statistics seem to support the theory that the NFL is more competitively balanced than MLB. 16 out of 31 teams have reached the NFL’s final four since 1997, while only 11 of 30 teams have reached their league’s championship series in MLB. Additionally, only the Browns, who started play in ’99, Panthers, Chargers and the hapless Bengals have not made the playoffs during that time.
Baseball is not too far behind as two-thirds of its league has qualified for the postseason over the same time if you include the Twins, Angels and Dodgers who are expected to make the playoffs this year. It is important to remember that the NFL offers four more spots in the playoffs each year than MLB does. Perhaps each sport would have an equal number of teams in the playoffs if an equal number of spots were available.
What price is the NFL willing to pay to ensure that it has competitive balance in its league? The salary cap ravaged some of the leagues greatest teams ever such as the 49ers, Cowboys and Bills of the early ’90s. Instead, one-dimensional sides such as the defense of the Ravens carried an offense that couldn’t score a touchdown, at one point, in four straight games, to the Super Bowl title in 2001.
Those 2001 Super Bowl Champion Ravens only have sixteen players left from the team that beat the Giants 34-7. Meanwhile, in baseball, the 2000 champion Yankees have only made minor changesin the past two years, which have turned out to be upgrades. The Yankees are one of the favorites to win the World Series this year, while the Ravens lost their opening game to the pitiful Panthers, a team many have picked to be the worst team in the NFL this year.
Many fans have griped that the Yankees, baseball’s version of Microsoft, are dominating the sport because they have the financial capabilities to spend more than its peers to field a winner. Although the Bronx Bombers have won four of the last six World Championships they have faced many close calls along the way. They have been pushed to the brink by the small market Oakland A’s in two of the last three years including a 2-0 deficit in the first round last year.
The argument that the Yankees are single-handedly dominating the sport is invalidated by the fact that two small market teams ? Minnesota and Oakland ? have combined payrolls that are less than the Yankees and are still neck-and-neck with them for the best record in the American League. The success of those teams along with the surprising run of Anaheim shows that you don’t have to spend an huge amount to win in baseball.
Those who prefer football to baseball will argue that its Nielsen ratings are tremendously higher. In fact, when the As and the Yankees played in the decisive game five of the American League Division Series last year, they went head to head with Monday Night Football. In what was termed “the Gutter Bowl,” the 1-4 Cowboys beat the 0-5 Redskins 9-7 in a sad display of football. Well that pathetic display of competition beat the Yankees game in the Nielsen ratings. All through the off-season I pondered how a game like that could defeat a playoff game in the ratings war. This Sunday I finally figured out why.
Nearly a billion dollars are wagered each year on the NFL. The limited number of games, 16 compared to 162 makes football a friendlier sport to gamblers, unless, of course, your name is Pete Rose. Consequently, fans will tune into football not because the quality of the sport is better, but because they want to see if they can win money. Combine that with the fact that all fans, even those who root for the Bengals, thinks their team has a winning chance once they enter the field, and you can see why football ratings are so high.
I might be in the minority but I don’t see why parity is a good thing. Isn’t the whole purpose of competition to field the best squad possible? If the Vikings do a superior job in scouting to build an All-Pro offensive line, why should they have to break it up because Randy Moss’ enormous contract puts them over the salary cap? That is like saying the Diamondbacks can afford to give Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling huge deals, but would have to let go of other stars like Luis Gonzalez and Steve Finley because of salary cap restraints.
The one error that MLB made in its recent collective bargaining agreement was that it did not institute a minimum salary floor for its franchises. The major mistake that most people make in assessing the failures of small market teams is that it is the penury of numerous owners, not the aggressive tactics of the Yankees, that is causing them to be at the bottom of the standings. Some teams have owners that would rather invest their money in other places. David Glass, the majority owner of the Royals is one of the richest men in the world as part owner of Walmart. Mike Illich spends $90 million dollars a year on the Red Wings, but only a little more than half that on his baseball team.
All things considered?excitement and quality of the sport, fan popularity, salary structure, revenue sharing, and competitive balance?I give baseball a slight edge. Baseball’s last few post-seasons have combined excitement and a high quality of play, while football’s has only enjoyed the former. The 2001 Diamondbacks and 2000 Yankees both had the guns to give the 1995 Braves a good fight, while the Patriots might give the second teams of the 1995 Niners and Cowboys a game. However, neither sport compares to the NBA. That is a different matter, for a different day.
Rybaltowski can be reached at email@example.com.