The National Basketball Association has taken a lot of heat over the past few years for being a league with just a few teams that can win the title. What they also have done is rack up the revenue. Adam Silver and co. are swimming in cash because of the soap opera it has turned into. The storylines are seemingly endless, as are the viewers. Conversely, the NFL is still widely popular, but there are some troubling signs for the league that literally owns a day of the week.
Concussions are starting to become the talking point they should be. People are retiring early because of the thought of CTE, or some long-term injury looming over them if they continue to play the dangerous game. Viewership was down a ton last year for some NFL games. Yes, I’m talking about you Thursday Night Football. The playoffs last year were more boring than the NBA playoffs, and that’s saying something. In addition, because of the strict rules being enforced, it has even earned the nickname “No Fun League”.. Other sports would love to have the NFL’s problems, but they are still problems. The future of the league does not look as promising as it did just a few years ago.
The NFL still has a stranglehold on the minds of most Americans, though. Also, the league is planning to allow more celebrations this upcoming season. They recognized the drop in viewers as well and are eliminating an extra timeout after scores (which is the greatest decision in the history of history. That additional commercial was worse than listening to a Boston fan when one of their four teams doesn’t win every title ever). So, it looks like the league may be moving in the right direction. However, there is still massive room for improvement. The NFL should take notes from the NBA’s success of recent years and try to build a similar model. It will be tough, and there will be critics, but hear me out, because things could get interesting (and also messy).
If the NFL adds a max contract like the NBA does, everything would change. Let’s think about this from an NBA side for a second. Not having a max contract would create teams like the Thunder, where one star, Russell Westbrook is paid a lot, and the rest of the team is role players. Superteams would not be eliminated, but slowed down. A big reason why superteams are a thing is due to the fact that stars are not forfeiting that much money to play with other greats. In some cases, a stud who could get the max somewhere, would only be taking four or five less million a year, if that, to play on a superteam. Now, imagine there was no max contract, and a player like Westbrook would get $50 million on the open market. There is a significantly less chance that he would cut his salary at least in half to play with some other star. Yes, I understand it would be completely different in the NFL because of roster size, but it would still change things. Teams are very reluctant now to give players other than Quarterbacks deals of $15 million a year or more. If they only had to pay their QB $16 million instead of $25 million, the whole dynamic changes.
“You started the superteam, bro,” Draymond Green said about Lebron James. At face value, this is just another petty quote between two of the biggest names in the NBA. Dig a little deeper, and you will find something. Draymond is clearly saying LeBron started the trend of a lot of stars on one team, when he left Cleveland for Miami. Green essentially is saying that since you started it, why can’t we all do it? The culture around the NBA is that going to play with other stars is fine. Yeah, a player who does it will get criticized for a while, but at the end of the day, it is what it is and most players will trade some bashing for a nice, shiny ring. Not only do players and fans seem to have accepted it, but the league LOVES it. The NBA could easily slow this trend down, or at least do something to try and stop it. Not only do they not do that, but they market the !@#$ out of these teams. Everything you see is about the Warriors and Cavs. The amount of coverage on just these teams is astounding. Yes, the media is the one doing the covering, but remember how much money is tied between the two. Hundreds of millions in contracts between outlets like ESPN and the NBA hinge on the success of the league. Both of these organizations work together, and ESPN (along with others) does not want to upset the company whose product they are presenting. The NBA is all for only covering these teams, and only showing their games on national television. It is not just because those games bring in more money. It is showing that they like the idea of superteams. They incentivize it. The NFL could very easily accomplish this. Stop trying to put every team on at least one primetime game a year. Let’s say the Packers and the Bengals are the superteams. Market them like crazy. Do not punish them for signing a ton of stars, but encourage it. Another huge factor is the drama. Hyping up rivalries between teams is essential. The NBA Finals were so highly viewed in large part because of the perceived disrespect of both teams. The NFL does have plenty of rivalries, but they are based of of long histories between teams rather than conflicts between players. This makes it harder for newer fans to get excited about the matchups. This is actually ‘for the culture,’ not some first round playoff series, Paul George.
You knew this was going to be brought up. It is not reasonable to just say that teams should tank more, they have to be incentivized more than they are now. That is the hard part. A few relatively subtle changes could make a big difference. A lottery would be a cop-out answer, and would not work very well in football. Instead, look where the money is going. Rookie contracts in the NBA are miniscule to what veterans get. The first pick last year was slotted to get under five million dollars, according to Real GM. In the NFL though, Myles Garrett cashed in with a signing bonus alone over $20 million, according to Forbes. Players earn a ton more in the NBA in general with players often earning around $30 million a year, but rookies are nowhere near that. In the NFL, veteran contracts are considerably less on average than in basketball, but rookie contracts are much closer to what those veterans get paid. This makes tanking and trying to get a top pick slightly less attractive because paying these guys is not cheap. Rookies in the NBA are very enticing in large part because of the miniscule salary they earn relative to veterans. Another factor with rookies is how likely they are to stay with your team after that initial rookie deal. In the NBA, players that become free agents often have the ability to earn more money for a longer period of time if they re-sign with their original team. “Bird Rights” as they are called, allow a team to go over the salary cap to bring back a player that has been on their team for three consecutive season. This indirectly is incentivizing tanking. A team is more likely to want to get a rookie if there is a higher likelihood that player will stay with the team after their initial contract is up. In sum, the NFL needs to pay rookies less relative to what veterans make. They also should add a “Bird Rights” type rule, or some factor that makes it more likely for players to return to their original teams. Now, you understandably may be thinking about the supposed contradiction between the culture previously discussed where players can leave, and this “Bird Rights” idea. There is an equilibrium that can be reached though, as evident by the NBA. Stars did not used to leave teams like they do now. Players like Kevin Durant already had a huge contract expire before he left, not his rookie deal. Remember how shocking and rare it was for Peyton Manning to leave? That does not happen as much in the NFL. Huge name veterans could leave more often than they do currently. But, young teams still build through their cores. Think of the 76ers and Browns. They have cap space and will try to re-sign their players they drafted. But teams that are in limbo that maybe have one star, think of the Saints with Drew Brees, have a new option. They could tank, Drew Brees could go to a team like Kansas City, who only needs a QB. This scenario is very NBA-like where teams either go for it with a lot of stars, like the Chiefs in this hypothetical, or blow it up, like the Saints. Roger Goodell may think the NFL is the dominant league in America, but with these changes, his league could surge the way the NBA has in years past.