Sunday’s Bears-49ers snooze fest exposes NFL’s ills. Other sports have the cure. – Chicago Tribune
Any way you look at it, Sunday’s game between the Chicago Bears and the San Francisco 49ers will be a drag. Two inept, injury-wracked franchises are staggering toward the end of a season long ago given up for dead, and with nothing but draft position at stake, losing is the optimal outcome.
But what if I told you there’s a way to infuse dreary contests like this with a jolt of drama, where hundreds of millions of dollars and inestimable prestige would be at risk with every muffed snap and noodle-armed interception. Think you’d nap on the couch then?
Well, my fellow sports fan, I am here to tell you that such a wondrous system already exists in most of the world, rewarding the worthy and punishing the second-rate. It’s called promotion and relegation, and it’s high time America got on board.
Under this scheme, the three or four teams with the worst records at the end of a season get banished to a lower league. At the same time, the three or four best teams in that lower league get promoted to the big time.
You don’t see teams tank for draft picks when failure means getting booted out of the top level and all the sweet TV money that comes with it. You don’t see owners stick with bungling front offices, nitwit coaches and inferior players when their fortunes are on the line.
As it stands, American owners have a sweet deal. They can put a team of folding chairs on the field and still make money hand over fist. Consider the Cleveland Browns, the most woeful NFL franchise of all.
Truck stop tycoon Jimmy Haslam bought the team in 2012 for $987 million, and since then, they’ve never finished above dead last in their division. This year, they haven’t won a single game.
Yet the Browns continue to make tens of millions of dollars in operating profit every year, according to Forbes, and in the short time Haslam has owned the team, its value has nearly doubled to $1.8 billion.
Why? Because there’s only one NFL, a cartel that rakes in $13 billion annually. As long as you’re among the fortunate 32 owners, you’re guaranteed to make a killing no matter how poorly you run your team.
Economists have long grasped the anti-competitive absurdity of this arrangement. David Haddock, a retired Northwestern University law and economics professor, has written papers on its contrast to the up-and-down world of European soccer, and says it provides safe harbor to underachievers.
“If you don’t have promotion and relegation, you diminish the incentives for these perpetually bad teams to get better,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any accident that the (Jacksonville Jaguars) always hang around the bottom. It would take a big investment (to improve them), but they prefer to take the profits.”
He added that teams protected from expulsion have extra leverage to put the screws to their local communities, strong-arming them for tax breaks or sweetheart stadium deals else they flee to friendlier surroundings. If you want NFL football, NBA basketball or Major League Baseball in your town, you have to play along.
That goes away when there’s promotion and relegation. Teams that leave a city are readily replaced by entrants in a lower league that can work their way to the top level. Other happy casualties are the salary cap (teams aren’t constrained from paying top dollar for talent) and the draft (organizations run their own training academies instead of relying on colleges to do it for them).
Some short-sighted curmudgeons will say that American owners, protected by antitrust exemptions, compliant politicians and undemanding fans, will never gamble their franchises in such a bold way. But I’m not so sure.
There’s a big upside for well-run teams — Barcelona and Real Madrid, the kings of Spanish soccer, are each worth more than $3.5 billion — and with weaklings expelled to lesser realms, the overall level of competition rises. That’s no small matter at a time when more and more American TV viewers are turning off sports.
And with the NFL obviously itching to expand internationally, a system of promotion and relegation would help make it happen. Let the top 20 teams stay (sorry, Bears), send the other 12 to a newly formed International Football League and add eight more teams in Europe, Canada and Mexico.
Every year, the top three IFL teams would come up, and the bottom three NFL teams would go down. Additional leagues would be added until the world runs out of billionaires desperate for bragging rights.
Maybe this sounds weird and scary to you. Maybe you prefer things the way they are, where teams mumble nonsense about “the process” and field one lame squad after another, knowing their profits are as safe as an armored car.
If so, all I can say is you’re in for a real treat Sunday. Enjoy your nap.
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