Passing the bucks: common sense in NFL

January 29, 2000|By Ken Rosenthal

ATLANTA -- The issue is hope.

"We have a system that works for all teams, no matter where they're located, no matter what size market they're in," NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue said yesterday at his Super Bowl news conference. "Our system gives every team the same chance, and it gives fans serious hope that their teams can make the playoffs and make a run at the Super Bowl championship."

The issue is hope.

"The average fan in the average city has two things going for him -- hope and faith, hope and faith that his team can be a contender," Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig said this week from his Milwaukee office. "At the moment, my job is to restore hope and faith to as many places as humanly possible."

To be specific, his job is to make MLB work like the NFL.

It would take increased revenue sharing among the owners. It would take the acceptance of increased salary restraints by the players. It would take a collective realization that the product is diminished when the baseball equivalent of the Tennessee Titans has no chance of making the World Series.

Tomorrow's Super Bowl will match teams from St. Louis and Nashville, the nation's 21st- and 30th-ranked television markets. The ratings on ABC might be better if the teams were still playing in Los Angeles and Houston. But the Super Bowl commands such a huge built-in audience, the identities of the teams historically haven't mattered.

In the big picture, a ratings hit would be a small price to pay for competitive balance. The NFL thrives because former commissioner Pete Rozelle persuaded the owners long ago to share their national-television revenue. Baseball owners do the same, but the bulk of their revenue comes from other sources.

The disparity in team payrolls results from the disparity in ballpark revenues and local media contracts, both of which are generally higher in larger markets. Without meaningful salary restraints -- and no, we don't mean the luxury tax -- the high-revenue teams can literally control the sport.

Contrast that with the NFL. The Titans are not an aberration, like the Cincinnati Reds were in baseball last season. Two other powerful teams in recent seasons -- Green Bay and Jacksonville -- hail from the two smallest markets.

"To win a Super Bowl, it's not simply a matter of who has the most money, who is in the biggest city or just having one great player," Tagliabue said. "It's a matter of who has the organization that can compete, build a team from top to bottom."

Selig, the former owner of the Milwaukee Brewers, would not argue. Just last week, the baseball owners granted him more power than perhaps any commissioner in major-league history. And if the Internet becomes a lucrative new revenue source, perhaps he can redistribute that money to level the playing field.

Of course, no one has any idea if that revenue will actually develop, or if it will detract from other sources, creating little overall impact. But Selig certainly sounds ready to act when he compares MLB's low-revenue teams to the Washington Generals, the traditional foils of the Harlem Globetrotters.

"[Payroll disparity] is in no one's best interests, not even the biggest markets," Selig said. "Once the fans sense that the Washington Generals are in town with three-quarters of the clubs, what does that do for the big-market clubs? This is a problem that needs to be dealt with. There's no one who claims we're better off because of it. And it gets worse every year."

Selig's problem is his sport's long history of narrow-minded self-interest. High-revenue teams likely will remain opposed to increased revenue sharing without increased salary restraints. The powerful Major League Baseball Players' Association probably will oppose both.

Let's start with the clubs.

"There is a recognition in our sport that the disparity which exists competitively on the field isn't a good thing long-term," said Stan Kasten, president of the Atlanta Braves, the NBA's Hawks and NHL's Thrashers. "I feel that way, and I'm one of those six to eight teams that has a chance when we break camp every spring. I'm not one of those 20 teams that don't really have a chance."

So, Kasten favors more revenue sharing?

"The NFL has a formula which is exactly right -- a significant amount of revenue sharing with a reasonable, workable salary-restraint mechanism," he said. "When both of those things are in place, it allows a business to be run on a reasonable basis, which allows both the league and teams to have a reservoir of capital to re-infuse into the business and keep it growing. It's a good business model."

Tell it to the union.

Under the collective-bargaining agreement, Donald Fehr and Co. must consent to any expanded revenue sharing. It probably would not be in their interests to approve a Robin Hood-style arrangement that diverted money from the teams that pay the highest salaries. It certainly would not be in their interests to approve a salary cap.

Besides, how much would a cap even work in baseball? New ballparks were once considered a panacea for low-revenue clubs, but that might no longer be the case. New parks are scheduled to open in cities like Pittsburgh, Milwaukee and Detroit, but will those teams be able to compete with a cap of, say, $70 million?

These are the questions Selig and Fehr must resolve, and signs are beginning to point to another labor dispute when the current agreement expires in either 2001 (if the union chooses to reopen negotiations) or 2002.

A work stoppage would miss the point.

The issue is hope.

The NFL offers it to every team. MLB doesn't.

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