The NFL and Socialism

In an article that isn’t really about politics or economics, the sports page brings a little insight to both:

How many people had the moxie a few months ago to predict that not only would the Kansas City Chiefs win the AFC West but that the San Diego Chargers would also not even make the playoffs? Well, at least one group got that Chiefs thing right.

That’s part of what has made the National Football League the dominant sports enterprise in the country: The socialistic economics of the league gives fans in most cities hope at the beginning of each year that their team might have a shot. (source)


And that is why some forms of socialism (think Norway, not Cuba) are superior to true free-market capitalism (think Albania, not the United States). The fact is, if you’re born in a slum in the United States, chances are that you’ll die in a slum too. Meanwhile, for a Swedish baby, the economic or social class of his parents has very little influence upon where he’ll be as an adult.

If your dad is in the lowest economic quintile, there is a 42 percent chance that you’ll stay there. Meanwhile, if the same son is born to a Danish, Finnish, Swedish, or Norwegian dad, he has only a 25-30% chance of remaining at the bottom. Worse yet, a Nordic child has a slightly greater chance of moving from the bottom quintile to the top quintile. See Jäntti, M., B. Bratsberg, K. Røed, O. Raaum, R. Naylor E. Österbacka, A. Björklund, T. Eriksson. 2006. “American Exceptionalism in a New Light: A Comparison of Intergenerational Earnings Mobility in the Nordic Countries, the United Kingdom and the United States.”; Miles Corak, 2006. “Do Poor Children Become Poor Adults? Lessons from a Cross Country Comparison of Generational Earnings Mobility,” IZA Discussion Papers No. 1993, Bonn: Institute for the Study of Labor (IZA) (concluding that Canada, Germany, and France have greater class mobility than the United States).

In other words, on any given Sunday, any NFL team can win. And in any given season, you never really know how the playoff picture will look. And any given child born in a more civilized country just might wind up doing awfully well.

In contrast, the San Diego Padres could win the World Series every year. But, if you laid your pre-season bet on anyone but the Red Sox or the Yankees, you’re probably throwing your money away. Meanwhile, despite the Patriots’ dominance of the past decade, you never really know if they’ll be playing in a game with roman numerals on it. Of course, their dominance is fairly attributable to the socialism within the team. The Patriots system pays Tom Brady pretty damn well, but he could probably make 30% more if he went to another team, meanwhile other players take less in order to bring in other talent under the salary cap — and thus producing three Superbowl wins since that became the system. Players who are willing to sacrifice for the collective good, like Teddy Bruschi, stick around. Those who simply chase the dollar (like Lawyer Milloy and Adam Vinatieri) wind up elsewhere.

Of course, the other side of the coin is that sometimes in a socialist system, losers can win. In the final week of the regular NFL season, the Seattle Seahawks will be 6-9, playing for the division title, might be the #4 seed in the NFC with a losing 7-9 record, and if things go their way in three games in a row, they’ll take home the Lombardi trophy.

I’m a social libertarian, but when it comes to economics, I favor a little bit of socialism… I stopped giving a shit about MLB when the Sox turned into Yankees North, but I don’t mind shelling out a couple of grand for NFL tickets.

11 Responses to The NFL and Socialism

  1. Murphasaur says:

    Isn’t the NFL scheme the result of contract, rather than Law? And if so, how does this qualify as Socialism?
    Seems to me to be market driven common sense.

  2. John David Galt says:

    The fallacy of regarding pro sports’ “equalizing” mechanisms (for example, drafts and salary caps) as socialism is that it confuses sports competition with economic competition.

    Take my favorite team, the 49ers. Yes, the salary cap and the draft help them somewhat against stronger teams. But economically they’re cooperating, not competing, with any other NFL teams (except maybe the Raiders). Their real competition is against other forms of entertainment in the Bay Area, including not just teams of other sports, but also such things as outdoor activities, theaters, nightclubs, and TV. And to win that competiton, the NFL wants its teams to be matched well enough that all the games are worth watching. A predictable blowout is boring and will drive fans away, even if your favorite team is the winner.

    No, the only thing that is “socialist” about pro sports is the subsidies they get from cities to build stadiums. Which should be banned because it is pure “rent seeking” and thus destroys wealth.

    • But isn’t that what socialism really is? Cooperation in lieu of competition? And in all but the most ultra batshit crazy socialist systems (N. Korea and Cuba) is there not still some degree of market competition?

      So, in (for example) Denmark, if the collective decision has been that they don’t want anyone winning by a blowout, because if the society has just blowouts and rich-getting-richer going on, wouldn’t that stifle creativity and innovation?

      I wonder how many innovators we have lost to the simple fact that getting your ass out of poverty in this society is quite difficult – even over a span of two or three generations.

      • Jason says:

        First off, I am left-leaning, so I sympathize with the general concept you are going for hear, but there are some serious holes.

        First, the reason the NFL isn’t analogous to socialism is that the teams are franchises under a corporate umbrella known as the NFL. Sorta like if you own a Subway franchise, you can’t go off and do whatever the hell you want using their name as your business. There isn’t a governing body for all sports that the NFL reports to.

        Secondly, I absolutely sympathize with the idea that the NFL structure is far superior to MLB, for the general reasons you say, though you do oversimplify it. The worst being that you arbitrarily say that Tom Brady could make 30% more with another team if he left. I have no idea where you come up with this. I’m not even talking about the amount, which is crazy enough, but that he would make more money at all anywhere else automatically. First of all, he’s in one of the biggest markets in the business. Second, he will be the highest paid player in the league next year. I assume if you are the highest paid player in the league, it would be hard to go out and make 30 percent more just by leaving the organization that made you #1.

      • Murphasaur says:

        Sorry, no, that’s not what socialism is, and it’s not good IMO to mix up competitive cooperation with a political system that’s a remnant of Old World regimes. Socialism is a political system where “cooperation” is enforced by law and is limited and highly restricted by the State. Check out what Charlie says:

  3. MikeZ says:

    First off I thought the NFL no longer has a salary cap as the collective bargaining agreement wasn’t extended?

    That aside from a competition perspective I think the MLB is FAR more like socialism than the NFL. Sure the NFL has a salary cap and no team can spend more than this and in theory this gives all teams equal footing. The problem though is all teams aren’t required to spend a minimum amount. According to USA today the Rams have half the salary as the Giants. ( So this isn’t much difference from MLB.

    I’m sure the argument from the teams with low payrolls is they can’t afford to pay thier players more. Here is where MLB looks a lot more like socialism and it takes money directly from the wealthy teams and gives it to the ‘poor’ teams so it can in theory be used to increase their payroll and have some parity. The problem in MLB is that the soft Salary Cap is set incredibly high, and most big markets have multiple MLB teams. Boston is lucky in that 5 1/2 states (counting half of CT) root for a single team. Population wise there are probably more people in Southern California but they have 3 MLB teams.

    Assuming the NFL teams have parity, I would still think placing a bet on Detroit getting to the Superbowl anytime in the next couple of decades is a bad bet. How many years do they have to give us crappy Thanksgiving entertainment before we can swap them for the Patriots on Thanksgiving day.

    • Jim says:

      Baseball’s revenue sharing is a drop in the bucket compared to the NFL. The NFL’s TV deals are all equally shared despite the Bears and Pats of the world being the ratings draw while no one cares about the Cards or Seahawks. The home road split for games is 60/40 in the NFL.

      All that said none of this is the reason why the NFL appears to have parity it comes down to two things small sample size and scedule. MLB plays 10 times the games so the teams are going to end up closer to their real ability instead of fluking a few wins and appearing better than they are. The difference between the hardest and easiest scedule in the NFL is worth about 2 games the same as in baseball the issue is there is only 16 games in football compared to 162 in baseball.

      • MikeZ says:

        True, I hadn’t considered Television Revenue. I was just thinking of the cap system by itself. I’d agree with you though, I don’t think the NFL can really be compared to any other pro sport because of the sample size difference. Now comparing the NHL/NBA and the MLB makes more sense (and they both seem flawed). The NHL seems to fair the best for parity with their biggest problem being that half the teams play in markets that couldn’t give a shit about hockey.

    • Jason says:

      The salary discrepancy in the NFL isn’t as significant as in MLB because of one main reason: the roster size. Football’s rosters are 53 players compared to 25 in baseball. In other words, your money goes much further in baseball. That’s why football teams almost HAVE to build a successful franchise through the draft. In baseball you can go out and buy 5 star players, whereas if you brought in 5 high-priced players in the NFL it’s nearly impossible to fill your 53-man roster.

  4. […] few weeks ago, I wrote a piece on The NFL and Socialism. Two days ago, Bill Maher wrote on the same thing, but maybe with a bit more cleverness, […]

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