Socialism for Sports

George Carlin compares football and baseball.

The congressional bailout isn’t the only scheme that redistributes resources, punishing excellence and rewarding failure.  The National Football League’s revenue sharing scheme does the same.  All football teams, regardless of their performance or fan base, draw an equal share of the TV revenue, which is the lion’s share of all revenue in football.  Doing so rewards teams that flop and undermines the incentive to excel.

The arguments for revenue sharing are unpersuasive.  People say that revenue sharing produces parity, where all teams have an equal chance of winning, which makes it more exciting to watch.  But flipping a coin also has parity, with an equal chance of either side “winning.”  Who wants to watch a coin being flipped? 

I think what people really want — or at least should want — is excellence.  That is, sport offers fans the chance to see excellence in athletic achievement.  If all we wanted to see was parity, people would fill stadiums to see little league games where the players are randomly assigned to teams.  Instead, people fill stadiums to see the very best athletes doing the very best they can.

Now, it’s true that we wouldn’t see excellence if one team could beat the other without effort.  If teams could simply buy so much superiority that they didn’t have to try to win, we would be disappointed.  But the reality is that without revenue sharing teams still cannot be assured victory, especially over an entire season.

Just look at Major League Baseball, which has limited revenue sharing and historically had none.  The highest spending baseball teams cannot assure themselves a spot in the playoffs, so they must regularly try hard.  There is a relationship between how much a baseball team spends on its payroll and how many games it wins, but that relationship isn’t very strong.  In 2008 the correlation between team payroll and regular season games won was only .33.  Consider that the top three payroll teams (Yankees, Mets, and Tigers) aren’t in the post-season, while the Tampa Bay Rays, who spent 1/5 as much as the Yankees, are.

We shouldn’t want to see no correlation between team payroll and success because the revenue partially serves as a reward for winning, motivating excellence.  It’s also true that larger media market teams get more revenue without necessarily winning more games.  But we should want larger market teams to have a better chance of having the resources to win.  After all, those teams have more fans.  We wouldn’t want to shut large market teams out of the post-season and turn-off the bulk of the nation’s fans.  So, it is altogether fitting and proper (as A. Lincoln would say) that Los Angeles and Chicago each have two teams in the baseball playoffs even while NY has none.  And small market teams like Tampa Bay and Milwaukee clearly still have a fighting chance.

Obviously, it wouldn’t be any fun to have a team that never had a hope of winning because its market was too small to generate the revenue for a competitive team.  But if there were such a team the solution would be to move that team to larger market rather than to move revenue to the market that wasn’t viable.

So, this weekend I’ll be watching the baseball playoffs rather than the NFL.  I’d rather watch excellence than a coin being flipped.

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