Baseball vs. Football: Which Sport is More Fair?

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The NFL seems to be a better league than the MLB for a small-time team, but the opposite may be true

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If you live in or near Pittsburgh and root for the Pirates and Steelers, the sports year must be a perpetual up and down. For followers of the Pirates, hope springs eternal in March then quickly fades. This year, that the Bucs seemed like contenders into the summer merely prolonged the agony, and the last two months have seemed more like the 2010 season, when the Pirates had the worst record in baseball with a won-lost percentage of .352.

Then, just as Pirates fans have forgotten what hope is, the football season starts and the Steelers are all that matter. The Steelers not only have one of the league's most glorious histories, they have, so far, one of the most enviable records of any NFL team in the past decade, going to the Super Bowl three times in the previous six seasons and winning two. The Pirates, in contrast, have not won a World Series since 1979.

The big difference between the Pirates and Steelers, as everyone knows, is economics.

Every year, just before football starts, baseball takes a drubbing from critics for allowing an economic structure in which so-called small market teams like the Pirates have no chance against the big-city, big-money guys. How can Pittsburgh, with its paltry payroll of just over $45 million, lowest in the National League and third lowest of Major League Baseball's 30 teams, possibly compete?

In contrast to the Pirates, the New York Yankees had the highest payroll for the 2011 season, over $202 million, and the next four teams - the Philadelphia Phillies (just under $173 million), the Boston Red Sox (just under $162 million), the Los Angeles Angels (just over $138 million), and Chicago White Sox (nearly $128 million) - all play in the nation's biggest cities.

But the teams of the National Football League, no matter how big the city the play in, don't have those kind of payroll disparities. Each club receives virtually the same share from the largest single revenue source: the league's enormous national television contracts. Given such disparity in incomes, how can baseball possibly stack up against pro football in terms of fairness and opportunity?

Quite well, actually, Bill Maher to the contrary. This past February, before the Super Bowl, Maher took an amusing stab at an explanation for why football's championship game has surpassed the World Series in popularity. During his New Rules segment, he said, "The American people need to understand what makes NFL football so great: socialism. That's right. The NFL takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poorer ones. ... Football is built on an economic model of fairness ... and baseball is built on an economic model where the rich always win and the poor have no chance."

Watch Bill rant here:


I'm not writing to defend capitalism. But in truth, it's baseball, not football, that "takes money from the rich teams and gives it to the poorer ones." MLB does not have a salary cap like the NFL, but it does have a luxury tax, and teams that spend above a pre-set limit are required to pay a penalty that is divided among the other teams. Over the past few years the threshold for the luxury tax has fluctuated from around $150 million to $178 million this season.

The problem is that MLB has not yet found a way to compel the so-called smaller market teams to spend that luxury tax on improving their clubs. Pittsburgh fans are painfully aware of this fact: last year saw a minor scandal when it was revealed that the Pirates, Tampa Bay Rays and other teams weren't spending their tax money on players' salaries, as was intended. But let's move on.

Of the two teams that played in the last Super Bowl, Maher noted, one is from Green Bay, Wisconsin, "a sleepy town of 100,000," and the other from Pittsburgh, a "small market city whose baseball team can't get near the World Series."

Maher's routine was funny. It was also dead wrong. It's true that Major League Baseball, compared to the NFL, has an almost absurdly unstructured economy; so-called big-market teams such as the Yankees and Red Sox are in a different stratosphere than small-market franchises such as the Pirates and Royals because most of their income derives from not from national television contracts, but from local TV deals.

And Maher is correct, more or less, when he says, "The NFL takes all the wealth and puts it in a big commie pie and slices it up 32 ways, one for each team" because "they don't want anyone to fall too far behind." Actually, NFL owners could care less about who falls behind: they split their TV revenue in equal shares in order to keep teams from getting into bidding wars for players. Dividing up the major source of revenue into same-size slices of the commie pie is an effective way to hold down worker salaries.

Here, though, is the point: Though few seem to understand it, baseball's relatively unrestrained free market system produces fairer results than pro football's socialism. From the first Super Bowl in January, 1967, to February's clash between the Packers and Steelers, there have been 45 Super Bowls featuring 27 different teams, with 17 different teams winning the championship. The last 45 World Series have also featured 27 different teams, but with 20 different clubs going all the way.

If we take the comparison from the beginning of this century, baseball still comes out ahead. From 2001 through last year, both MLB and the NFL saw 14 different teams place in the 20 slots for their championship game. But football has had just seven different winners over those ten seasons, while baseball has had nine.

Why is this? One might argue that pro football's policy of wealth distribution discourages some teams from even trying to compete. After all, the Pirates did win the Series in 1971 and 1979, while the Cleveland Browns (either in their old manifestation or rebirth in 1999) and Detroit Lions have never even been to a Super Bowl. And it is no small point that a large part of NFL football's seeming parity is an illusion: The league has 12 postseason spots for it's 32 teams, so 37.5 percent of the clubs will get a playoff berth. Baseball has room for just eight playoff teams out of 30, or 26.7 percent.

So, yes, Major League Baseball does have a problem trying to get teams like the Pirates into the Fall Classic - and the Bucs, who are currently 16.5 games out of first place in heir division, won't be going this year, either. Meanwhile, the NFL has a problem just as serious which few even acknowledge, namely how to get teams without much economic incentive out of their mediocrity mode. The New York Jets play in sport's biggest market, yet they haven't won the Super Bowl in 41 seasons. Even Bill Maher might concede that after more than four decades, Jets fans are ready for a little more free-market stew and a little less commie pie.

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Allen Barra writes about sports for the Wall Street Journal and TheAtlantic.com. His next book is Mickey and Willie--The Parallel Lives of Baseball's Golden Age.

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