It happens every year around this time: someone will point to the NFL’s mounting chaos in the standings and argue that Major League Baseball needs to do a better job of aping the structure of professional football. Never mind that MLB has caught up to the NFL in terms of fan loyalty, MLB Network will soon be in more homes than the NFL Network, and MLB’s digital-media presence outstrips the NFL’s to the point of embarrassment. Most of all, never mind that you simply can’t compare the two leagues.
Consider a few points:
- In terms of competitive parity (real or imagined), the NFL plays roughly one-tenth as many regular-season games as MLB does (ergo, small sample size; ergo, more fluke-ish outcomes), gives teams a week or so between games to scout and game-plan the opposition, allows a larger percentage of teams into the playoffs, has a one-and-done postseason format, and generally rigs the schedule to benefit weaker teams.
- The NFL equally shares local revenues, whereas MLB does not.
- The MLBPA is one of the strongest unions around. The NFLPA, until very recently, has largely functioned as an accommodating valet to ownership.
- NFL franchises are tasked with selling tickets to eight home games per season. MLB teams are tasked with selling tickets to 10 times as many home games per season.
- NFL owners and the league’s commissioner did not, for year after year in an attempt to turn the public against the union, indulge in an anti-marketing campaign that highlighted imagined weaknesses. MLB and Bud Selig, of course, did exactly that.
Notice that none of those distinctions involves the salary cap, which sportswriter populism tells us is the driving force behind the NFL’s reputed competitive balance and something baseball desperately needs. Of course, the NFL is functioning without a salary cap this season, and the contending fray is no more or less muddled than usual and spending is holding steady.
As ever, the facile comparisons do not hold. The structural differences between the NFL (and its football-related product) and MLB are simply too great. Baseball would do well to realize this.