MLB, NFL Parity: Tell Your Kids To Play Baseball

On Tuesday, we took a quick look at the competitive balance in the MLB, and I made the claim that baseball may have more parity than most leagues, but it also has want of greater balance. During the course of the piece, I made this statement:

The NFL has decided it wants payroll to have essentially no impact on winning, so teams basically trot out the same amount of money every Sunday and hope their money was better-spent. Is that what the MLB wants?

Aft’wards, Paul Swydan pointed out to me that indeed NFL salaries are not flat. Despite their hard cap, their hefty revenue sharing, and their tight spandex pants, the NFL still exhibits nearly a $77M gap between the biggest and lowest payroll — impressive, but still nothing compared to the MLB:

The highest-spending NFL team this year (the Cowboys) have a payroll 2.3 times larger than the lowest-spending (the Buccaneers) franchise. The highest-spending MLB team this year and every year (the New York Yankees) had a payroll a whopping 5.6 times larger than the lowest-spending (the Kansas City Royals) team.

Moreover, whereas the MLB’s payrolls pretty much follow the expectations of the market size, the NFL has much greater payroll flexibility: Three of the top five NFL payrolls are large markets (New York twice and then Dallas), but smaller markets like Green Bay and Indianapolis are still among the biggest spenders — and two of the richest NFL franchises (Washington and Philadelphia) check in at the middle and bottom of the pack. (Interestingly, Tampa Bay is one of the lowest spenders — in both leagues.)

With the MLB, we saw that payroll explained 17% of the variation in wins over the 12 seasons of 2000 through 2012. Unfortunately, too few nerds watch football, so it appears reliable payroll data (like what we have in Cot’s) is harder to find for the NFL. I did, however, manage to acquire 2009 payroll data in addition to the 2011 data shown above (obviously, because the NFL season is still in progress, I don’t want to use 2011 data).

Comparing NFL winning percentage to payroll shows a less steep and more loose relationship than we saw with the MLB:

Naturally, this study would improve with expansive and reliable salary data for the NFL, but given what is available, the results seem intuitive and correct. The NFL has a much narrower gap between its spenders, and the market for player talent in the NFL is much more… complicated.

The MLB is able to slot any player from any team into the same position on their field and Spagett! they’ve got a new asset. In the NFL, the most cookie-cutter non-kicking positions — something between running backs and offensive lineman — can still have vastly different roles depending on the coach’s schemes. So what’s valuable to one team is not necessarily valuable to another.

Anyway, all this leads towards greater inefficiency in the market for NFL players — so I theorize. Tack that onto their league-wide payroll manipulation and you have a league with much great parity than the MLB.

As I noted in my original piece, comparative justice is not really what anyone should strive for. Just because the MLB may seem to have more parity than the NFL (which, of course, the above data does not suggest) does not mean the MLB should be happy with its situation. Fewer poor people die of curable diseases now more than ever in history. Hooray?

I tend to agree with what mike wants win noted in the comments of Tuesday’s piece: “Parity is about hope.”

The odd, quasi-geographical division alignment in the MLB allows for sometimes less-than-great teams to slip into the playoffs, which allows Jayson Stark and defenders of MLB parity (a crowd from which I move further and further away) to suggest small market teams are doing quite well, when in fact, really only ~1 of them (the Rays and sometimes another one, depending on the year) is displaying sustained success.

For most fans of small market teams, they must wait through several seasons of a rebuilding cycle, while New York, Boston, and Chicago fans routinely expect — and probably should expect — playoff potential for each season.

Of course, one of the major takeaways from this, however, should most certainly be this simple fact:

Don’t let your kids play football. Tell your son (or daughter) to play baseball instead.

Why? Well, first and foremost by far: Health reasons. I played football for 11 years, never played a snap in college, but yet have the grindy old knees of a man twice my age. Severe injuries in baseball really, really hurt and can end your playing career, but even common injuries in football can change your life forever or end it prematurely. I love football, but boy, it needs a lot of work on the health front.

Secondly: Money. Holy molly, Carlos Zambrano would be the second-highest paid NFL athlete, behind only Peyton Manning. Of course, I imagine NFL players get many more endorsements, but that doesn’t change the fact that 52% of the contracts on this list went to baseball players.

The comments in Tuesday’s piece were largely productive and mostly excellent. I attempted to address several of them in this piece, but there are a few more I’d like to highlight and open for further discussion.


another interesting question is also whether or not winning is sustainable at lower payrolls. the model for sucking–>garnering draft picks–>winning–>selling off can only last so long, and fleeting success can’t be relied on to fill seats and build a winning team.


I’d advise people to not dig too deeply into the 17% number. The exact number isn’t what linear regression is for. All it really says is what conventional wisdom already thinks – teams with more money will tend to win more often. That’s what I’m taking away from the article. No more, no less.

Exactly, Mac. That’s all I took out of it.

Mac again:

A statistical critique:

Z-scores should only be used on normally distributed data. I started poking around the data set and since 2000 there has definitely been a trend of right-skewed (non-normal) distribution in MLB payroll numbers.

A most excellent observation. I clearly fell prey to a trap I most hate. Honestly, though, during reflection, I could not think of a better alternative to using z-scores. I asked the other writers, and they answered with all these big scary statistical terms.

I’ll be sitting down with a dictionary later today to see if I can’t unravel some of their suggestions.

John Thacker:

…[Linear regression] is also a *terrible* choice as well when the data consists of an enormous clump around a central value plus a small number of outliers far away in the independent variable (salaries).

Essentially the entire result will be determined by whatever the Yankees do. To give a physical analogy, the Yankees are far from the center of mass, so they exert more torque.

Your graph is a textbook example of “when linear regression isn’t that useful a tool.”

I’d like to see the numbers with the Yankees removed.

I will admit, I had the same suspicions as John Thacker — which sounds like an abolitionist’s name. I am a touch surprised to see the coefficient get steeper, though the drop in R-squared does not shock me.


The problem with NFL-style fairness is that baseball ratings and revenues are stronger with good big-market teams, especially the Yankees (1965-75 were awful years for MLB and especially the American League, the NFL zoomed past it). So they want big-market teams to do well, on the other hand, if it gets out of hand with revenue disparity and you have the 1949-64 AL where the Yankees win all but two pennants, the other teams in the league suffer.

Very interesting. I had not though of it this way before. My only contention is that the geographical demographics of America have gone through an immense upheaval since that time, making California a much bigger alternative than it have been previously. If the Yankees go through a cold spell and the three four five, whutevz, Cali teams heat up, it might be a net wash.

Let’s end on that one.

Because I have a legit chance at breaking FanGraphs’ all-time word count record, here’s the data I used for the first chart:

NFL Dallas  $   136.60 New York Yankees  $   202.69
NFL Green Bay  $   129.80 Philadelphia Phillies  $   172.98
NFL New York Jets  $   128.50 Boston Red Sox  $   161.76
NFL New York Giants  $   126.30 Los Angeles Angels  $   138.54
NFL Denver  $   125.00 Chicago White Sox  $   127.79
NFL Houston  $   118.40 Chicago Cubs  $   125.05
NFL Pittsburgh  $   116.00 New York Mets  $   118.85
NFL Indianapolis  $   115.50 San Francisco Giants  $   118.20
NFL Washington  $   115.20 Minnesota Twins  $   112.74
NFL Detroit  $   113.80 Detroit Tigers  $   105.70
NFL Minnesota  $   108.40 St. Louis Cardinals  $   105.43
NFL Tennessee  $   107.40 Los Angeles Dodgers  $   104.19
NFL New Orleans  $   105.20 Texas Rangers  $      92.30
NFL Chicago  $   104.90 Colorado Rockies  $      88.15
NFL Miami  $   103.10 Atlanta Braves  $      87.00
NFL St. Louis  $   102.40 Seattle Mariners  $      86.52
NFL New England  $   102.30 Milwaukee Brewers  $      85.50
NFL Atlanta  $   102.10 Baltimore Orioles  $      85.30
NFL Baltimore  $   101.30 Cincinnati Reds  $      75.95
NFL San Francisco  $   100.90 Houston Astros  $      70.69
NFL Cleveland  $      99.20 Oakland Athletics  $      66.54
NFL Buffalo  $      96.40 Washington Nationals  $      63.86
NFL Cincinnati  $      90.70 Toronto Blue Jays  $      62.57
NFL Oakland  $      85.80 Florida Marlins  $      56.94
NFL San Diego  $      85.80 Arizona Diamondbacks  $      53.64
NFL Arizona  $      83.00 Cleveland Indians  $      49.19
NFL Seattle  $      81.10 San Diego Padres  $      45.87
NFL Philadelphia  $      80.80 Pittsburgh Pirates  $      45.05
NFL Jacksonville  $      78.10 Tampa Bay Rays  $      41.05
NFL Kansas City  $      74.70 Kansas City Royals  $      36.13
NFL Carolina  $      73.00
NFL Tampa Bay  $      59.70

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Bradley writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @BradleyWoodrum.

41 Responses to “MLB, NFL Parity: Tell Your Kids To Play Baseball”

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  1. Bryz says:

    An interesting counterargument is the guarantee of ANY money, however. In baseball, you need to work your way through the minor leagues first before getting a chance for that big paycheck. Meanwhile, football only has a practice squad, and very few players ever make it on there. Once you’re drafted, you get a fairly decent contract, at least for simpletons like us. So you’re stuck deciding between two things… work harder but with more risk of getting the larger paycheck, or work less for a smaller paycheck but with less risk as well.

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    • Bryz says:

      Granted, since NFL contracts aren’t guaranteed, one could argue that their contracts carry more risk than MLB contracts as well.

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      • Yeah, that’s the major caveat, of course, that reaching the highest level is more difficult in baseball than any other sport. I believe Tango once put it a less than 1%.

        Still, at least you get to walk away.

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      • Eliot says:

        Wouldn’t basketball be the hardest due to the lesser number of players per team (15 compared to 25/40)?

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    • Piratesbreak500 says:

      Baseball players tend to get higher bonuses than NFL players, and there is also a much larger amount of baseball players drafted and signed each year. If you want to see some really interesting data, look at NFL bonus spending in total…then look at everyone past the first ten picks. In baseball, players have leverage. If they’re high schoolers, they can take a scholarship to go to college. If they’re college guys, they can typically go back for the senior year, or they have a diploma they can use. Note: while the NCAA has mandates on how often football players are allowed to practice, I talked to many trainers when I was a school, and the actual time for team activities is much more.
      Finally, average career of an NFL player? Less than three years.

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    • sindarta says:

      It is also worth noting the average span of a players career in every sport. A football player will propably receive pay for far less years in comparison to a baseball player.

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  2. Jessica says:

    Hooray for the font joke!

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  3. Matt says:

    I’m not good with all the money/econ stuff, but here’s what I’m getting out of this discussion. What we want, essentially, is for all fans to be happy/have fun/enjoy rooting for their teams. The assumption being made here is that more winning=happier fans. While this is probably true – as a Yankees fan, I can attest to how fun it is to see my team win consistently – I wonder whether there is more overall fan happiness if all teams are a little closer to that 87-win playoff threshold. Though fans like seeing their team win, they also like a good competition, and when the Yankees are expected to make the playoffs every year, the regular season becomes a lot less interesting.

    Now of course, I have no idea how this would happen. Would greater payroll balance lead to less variation in winning percentage, and therefore more excitement for fans? I don’t know. All I’m suggesting is that even if high payroll teams like the Yankees consistently won, I think fans would be a lot happier if that consistent winning was just a little weaker. This would both give small-market teams a better chance of making the playoffs (or at least a better perceived chance) and bigger-market teams more excitement and less sureness that they would get there.

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    • DD says:

      When the Yankees or Red Sox win less, there is the opportunity for the media to talk about them a lot more: what went wrong, who needs to be replaced, who got fired, etc. If they win 95 games a year and make the playoffs, not much turnover happens, not as much bait is there for reports, they just keep humming along and other teams can be allocated time for discussion.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        In the short term, yes. In the long term, if the Yankees and Red Sox are no longer “THE YANKEES AND RED SOX” then no one will care when they miss the playoffs because it won’t be weird. Instead they’ll talk about how the Royals farm system produced another great offensive player, or how Tampa Bay is the second best run organization behind Apple or something.

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  4. Dan says:

    Unless Joe Morgan finally defeated Moneyball and contracted the A’s, there are still 4 teams in California.

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    • Husker says:

      Hmm, I count 5, but then I am a Husker, where we learned counting in kindergarten.

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      • Yirmiyahu says:

        Really says a lot about the level of intelligence on this website if there’s a raging debate over how many MLB teams there are in California.

        Personally, I count three. There’s that one in the bay area, that one in LA, and that other one down in Mexico.

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      • Curtiss says:

        There are in fact 5

        LA Angels
        Oakland Athletics
        San Fran Giants
        San Diego Padres
        LA Dodgers

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  5. JW says:

    “three Cali teams?”

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  6. DD says:

    Brad – one of the reasons NFL teams can have more payroll parity is that they only play 16 games a year, and every team sells out virtually every game. Look at the attendance per team in the NFL vs MLB and I bet it looks a lot like your green-on-green payroll comparison.

    Also, please use more interesting colors than green/other green. And remember, every respectable graph includes a Nintendo character strategically placed on it!

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    • Yirmiyahu says:

      Screw attendance. The NFL gets its money from its massive TV contracts (the proceeds of which I believe are equally distributed to the teams). Either way, I’d agree that the NFL has both more revenue parity in addition to more payroll parity.

      The 16 game schedule is really important. Bradley’s payroll/winning% graph is based on 1×16 games on the winning% axis of the graph. The MLB version had 11×162 games on the winning% axis of the graph. Of course the r2’s going to be smaller in the NFL version, simply due to SSS randomness.

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        The NFL indeed gets WAAAAAAAAY more TV revenue from baseball. In part because games are more scarce and the sport is more popular, but also because in the NFL, the broadcast rights are negotiated through the league, not team by team. In MLB, it’s team by team. So you have say the Royals and Cardinals as the 2 sellers of their product to the buyers in say, Springfield, MO (about equidistant), thus, the price goes down. In the NFL, there is one seller, so either you pay the NFL and those teams what they want or you don’t get football. Basically Bud Selig does nothing to improve competitive balance and uses outliers to prove it exists. In the NFL, they do everything to ensure both real and false parity (how they schedule teams against like-teams from the previous year so if you were bad you play other bad teams the following year, you get marginally better and you win 4 more games), the small sample size, the higher degree of revenue sharing, the TV contracts. Basically the NFL kicks the shit out of MLB as far as promoting competitive balance and making it believable to both dump people and smart people. Only an idiot sees the MLB and the fact that there hasn’t been a single season since the wild card that both the Yankees and Boston missed the playoffs. If you look at the average standings at the end of the year by division, very often the richest team is at the top and the poorest team is at the bottom.

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  7. Dual-Fan says:

    I am a huge baseball and football fan. The fact of the matter is that the NFL and the MLB are constructed totally differently.

    Baseball is much more individual driven. Football is all team based (making statistical analysis of single players extremely hard!).

    Baseball is a marathon where single games don’t define a season. Each game to an NFL team is absolutely critical.

    Baseball winning is more volatile. Very often a strong team will win only 2/3 of its games against the weakest of teams. Football is more predictable overall, just think of how many times in a row the Patriots beat the Bills. This is likely why gambling is much for popular in football.

    Lastly, football games have “holy cow that changes everything” moments more often. 90 yard pick sixes exist. You don’t see a team with the bases loaded and 1 out suddenly have a grand slam hit against them.

    Long story short, they are so completely different, that I think trying to compare them in the way you are trying to is a fool’s errand. I love both for different reasons, and I think they complement each other well. The NFL is the pinnacle of marketing greatness IMO (maybe Apple is there too), so trying to compare the MLB to it is difficult.

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    • Husker says:

      I don’t see how any of your points has any relevance for a payroll parity discussion.
      This was a fine article, and I would like to see more like it.

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      • evo34 says:

        It;s relevant because people try to meaure “parity” by win-loss records across sports. In fact, baseball is structured such that individual game outcomes will be more random than in football. This structural difference does NOT mean that money is less meaningful in baseball, and that we should support the lack of salary cap. Would you participate in a fantasy league where some teams were able to spend (fantasy dollars) in proportion to their actual net worth? Of course not. There would be nothing fun about that. Yet that’s exactly what happens in baseball.

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  8. HodgyBeats says:

    I’m a bigger baseball fan than a football fan, but the NFL is seriously trending up, while baseball is on the decline nationally. By the time my future kids (I’m 23) are ready (lol) to play professional sports, I don’t expect the current salaries to have any impact on them.

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  9. stan says:

    Thanks for the article. Its nice to read an article on the subject that isn’t Stark’s yearly excuse fest. He cherry picks so much that you’d think he’s getting paid to do that article by the agents or the MLBPA.

    One other thing about football you only touched on. Though free agency isn’t as effective due to the different needs in positions that teams have, that same fact gives teams an added incentive to keep their players because it is often unrealistic to expect to get a replacement in free agency.

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  10. Jibraun says:

    This article and yesterday’s article appears to gloss over the fact that there should be a correlation between payroll and winning because teams that appear to have a shot will spend more. On the other hand, teams that are on the edge of competing, but don’t see a fix to it will start reducing payroll in hopes of competing in the future.

    Think about it this way, you’re a GM with an 85 win team. You think there are some acquisitions to be made that can put you to 90 wins and the playoffs. You’ll likely amp up payroll to do that. Reverse would be true too. If you’re an 85 win team and you see no quick fix, you’ll likely dump payroll because there is no real difference to winning 85 or 80 games.

    That should be controlled for and explained clearly when doing any such analysis.

    But I agree with all the commentary above, this is way better than Jayson Stark. Then again, it seems like Stark gave up on being an objective journalist a long time ago, and just writes about stupid quirks about the game. So, no one should be surprised.

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    • sindarta says:

      “On the other hand, teams that are on the edge of competing, but don’t see a fix to it will start reducing payroll in hopes of competing in the future.”
      Unless you are the Orioles…

      I think there is a point to be made here. If we want to summarize what we have learned so far in one sentance that would read: “The parity in wins in the MLB does not come from a parity in payrolls but from the greater set of data.”

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      • Jibraun says:

        I agree with that assertion. Lots of factors are at play. Having a large payroll is clearly an advantage, but let’s not overstate it’s importance. I think this article does a good job of balancing all the arguments.

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  11. Craig says:

    Thanks, an interesting and thought-provoking article. Here’s what I was thinking:

    I agree Z-scores are inappropriate – what if you used the ln() of payroll instead?
    What r-squared do you get if you separate the analysis into NL and AL models?
    You might get a more robust model by grouping teams into deciles, so you look at the combined win pct of the 3 highest payroll teams vs their combined payroll, then the next 3 highest teams, etc.
    Your graphs are giving Edward Tufte indigestion. ;)

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  12. One other caveat to discuss: the new NFL collective bargaining agreement has put into place a max cap and a min cap that has to be met within three years. The min cap is something like 115 million and the max is like 120 million. So the disparity between the highest payroll team and the lowest payroll team will be virtually moot once the whole thing goes into effect.

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  13. John Thacker says:

    Thanks for running it without the Yankees.

    It doesn’t surprise me too much to see the slope get slightly steeper sans Yankees; as someone else pointed out, there’s diminishing returns involved in several ways, so we should expect the result to trail off.

    The non-Yankees coefficient is a significant smaller. It reinforces my suspicion that the real parity problem is Yankees vs. everybody else, not a general “rich vs. poor.” Poor O’s and Jays.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      phillies and red sox seem like they’d skew it too with their sustained success. the Red Sox are considered a failure because of their high payroll, but the fact is, they win a ton of games.

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  14. Craig says:

    Interesting quirk I just noticed – there were as many playoff teams this year in the bottom 6 of payroll (Rays and D’Backs) as there were in the top 6 (Yanks and Phils). Pure coincidence probably, but nice to see.

    So the playoff teams this year were ranked 1,2,10,11,13,17,25,and 29. Average rank of 13.5.

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  15. JG says:

    I like how the Lions and Tigers are in the same rank, although I guess it’s for completely different reasons why they’re both spending a lot of money…

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  16. STEVE says:

    One thought i have about parity in the NFL vs. MLB is schedule manipulation. The NFL has a way of making last years good teams play much harder schedules this year. In baseball you play your division teams 18-19 times a year. Plus in MLB inter league play you play your “natural geographical” rival. So while the Bosox are stuck playing the Phils the Rays get to play the Marlins and the Astros.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      Like I said above, the NFL makes parity both in a real and an artificial way. 162 games vs 16 games in itself means there is some false competitive balance. The NFL has done everything in their power to make it feel like any team has a shot. As a Rams fan (sort of) I’m not worried about the team. Or the Chiefs, think about this, they were awful in 2009, made the playoffs in 2010 (2011 really, but the season was mostly 2010), then sucked this year. Why? They got marginally better from 2009-2010, so they played sucky teams in their non-division games, boosting their win total. If you win 4 more games, you can go from a 6-10 also ran, to a 10-6 playoff team. That doesn’t happen in baseball. So you have the two artificial elements in football like the small sample size and the scheduling, plus the very real ways to help achieve competitive balance such as a reverse order draft (pretty much every league does it now), caps and minimums, 60/40 shared revenue, etc. Baseball is half assing it and because there are extreme outliers like the Yankees who really don’t represent what’s going on, people don’t buy it. SOOOO many things that are actually happening in the real world, people don’t believe in. Politicians do this kind of thing all the time. It’s not necessarily about what’s actually happening, but what people believe is happening. The Patriots and Steelers have been about as dominant as the Yankees and Red Sox over the past decade, but people still percieve competitive balance in the NFL because of the cap. Instead of “buying championships” they are “well run organizations”, which they probably are.

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