Is Parity a Farce?

While the NFL is trying to have the greatest parity in professional sports, one has to wonder if the teams that are of higher marketability might have things skewed in their favor. In this age of TV time outs, and selling the naming rights of stadiums, is the NFL really giving us parity, or is the money dictating more than just the advertisements?

Professional sports teams can certainly have their ups and downs. NBA teams continue to draft younger and younger in attempts to find the next great star. Bad baseball teams tend to get worse (unless you wear Sox that aren't black) as the teams that have more money can sign better players, and get better, and get more money to sign better players. The NFL, on the other hand, fairly recently (in the grand scheme of things) instituted free agency and salary caps, trying to ensure that a team with a terrible record one year can still be competitive the next. While the NFL is trying to have the greatest parity in professional sports, one has to wonder if the teams that are of higher marketability might have things skewed in their favor. In this age of TV time outs, and selling the naming rights of stadiums, is the NFL really giving us parity, or is the money dictating more than just the advertisements?

Let's face it. The NFL isn't out to appease fans. The NFL is out to do what every business is out to do, and that is to make money. That is the main business theory behind the supposed parity of the league; who would buy Cardinals gear year after year if they weren't at the very least contenders? But beyond that, there are always a few teams that seem to be shoved down the public's throats, no matter what their record is. See if these names are familiar: Atlanta Falcons, Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots, Dallas Cowboys.

Why are those names so familiar? No, not because they are teams in the NFL. It's because those four teams are consistently tops in merchandise sales. The top 10 teams as far as merchandise sales are Oakland, New England, Dallas, Green Bay, Philly, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, San Fran, and Miami. You can scratch Oakland and the Pack from the list; Oakland sells because of the colors, and the Pack are big regional sellers, but not national. So, taking that into account, your top 5 teams in merchandise sales are the Pats, the Eagles, the Cowboys, the Steelers, and the Falcons. Because these teams are constantly selling gear, they are covered more often than other teams. This is the primary reason the Panthers were "under the radar" last year. It's not that they weren't good; it's that they weren't a marketable team.

Last year, during the Super Bowl run, many of our outspoken players commented on the NFL not wanting us to be where we were. The networks and sports analysts sure didn't want us in the playoffs. The league (meaning the NFL, the fans, the analysts, et al.) wanted to see a big name team in the Super Bowl Seriously, anyone with tapes from the playoffs, go play them and see how many promos FOX and the other stations had on Philly. The analysts, and most NFL fans, said that seeing the Panthers in the playoff hunt was "boring." According to them, the black cats didn't deserve to be there, the play style was boring, and they were overrated on all sides of the ball. While we can definitely debate that all of the above are false, admit it; that was the perception of most of the league, the fans, and the analysts...Carolina should be out, a team like Atlanta, Philly, or Dallas should be in.

We all know how that ended; St Louis was supposed to beat the Panthers in the dome, and it didn't happen. Philly was supposed to break the curse, and beat Carolina at the Linc. Didn't happen. Carolina goes to the Super Bowl, and the world groans. Because of why? They didn't pay our dues, they didn't deserve it, etc. Well, they DID deserve it; they had the record to go to the playoffs, and they beat three teams to get to the Super Bowl. However, the league decided that we just didn't belong, and collectively, they all griped and complained that Philly wasn't there, or all the bazillions of people that own red #7 jerseys complaining that if Vick had been healthy, blah blah blah. Once again, people complaining about a low-rating, low marketability team making it to the big dance, while the big merchandise sellers sit at home.

Fast forward to 2004. The Panthers are 1-6, while Atlanta is 6-2, and Philly is a remarkable 7-0. Those that know me know that I believe the NFL isn't scripted...only wrestling and baseball. However, let's look at a few things.

First off, there is the strength of schedule (SoS) for each team. A perfectly even strength of schedule would be .500, or your opposition, in the previous year's total, went a combined 128-128. In theory, the hardest schedules should belong to those that went the furthest each year, meaning the Super Bowl Champs should have the hardest, Super Bowl losers should have the second hardest, and so on and so forth. As a litmus test, the worst team in the league last year, San Diego, has a strength of schedule of .508. Their opponents just barely won more than they lost. The Carolina Panthers have an SoS of .537, or better known as the toughest schedule in the league for this year. So, how does Atlanta rank? They have an SoS of .488, which is easier than the worst team in the league last year, and have the 10th easiest schedule in the NFL. Where does Philadelphia, a team that was in the NFC Championship game, rank? A whopping .473 is their SoS, the second easiest of the entire NFL. In fact, the three easiest schedules are Pittsburgh, Philly, and Dallas, in that order. These three teams also happen to be three of the top five in merchandise sales, and two of those three were playoff teams last year. That, to me, seems against the philosophy or parity in the league, when you allow two playoffs teams the two easiest schedules.

Next, take the Terrell Owens situation. TO or his agent, depending on who you ask, forgets to file his free agency paperwork, making him a 49er for one more year. With his rights, the 49ers traded him to Baltimore, despite TO saying that he would love to be in Philly (I have opinions on the sole reason he didn't want to go to Atlanta, but that's another editorial). So, now TO is a Raven, or is he? The NFL has precedent to not allow players to reverse their paperwork for free agency, but in this instance, TO was able to become an Eagle before a week was up. Can you honestly tell me the NFL wouldn't say "tough luck" to a back-up offensive lineman who had been put in the same situation?

Now, let's stop being defensive and be offensive. Carolina is in a 5 game skid, and for the most part, one can't blame anyone but the Carolina Panthers. We've played some good teams, but done ourselves more harm than good. The Panthers have been in most of the games they've played, but had key penalties against them in crucial situations. In fact, some no-calls (Muhammad's pass interference versus Seattle, anyone?) and some blatantly terrible calls have put the wins just past the Panthers reach. While indeed, the Panthers should put themselves in situations where a bad call will not affect the game's outcome, the Panthers are notorious for winning the close games, so sometimes those call have to be made, or reviewed. The Panthers lost to Seattle by 6 points. Are you telling me that the no-call on Moose wouldn't have put the Panthers in a position to win that game? Remember the "pass interference" call against Manning versus San Diego? Not only was Manning nowhere near the receiver, it set up a Charger score, and dramatically changed the momentum of the game. The league later issued an apology on that call, saying it shouldn't have been made. Does that grant you the win? Not at all. It just seems like the referees are judging the game less, and waiting for Carolina to do something questionable more.

While I'm certainly not crying "conspiracy theory," the 3rd down penalties and no-calls against the Panthers seem to stem from a skewed perspective. While the Panthers have made mental errors, several calls have been more than questionable. Not only that, but it would appear that, statistically, the teams that sell better seem to get easier schedules, despite playoff appearances the previous year. I certainly don't want to take anything away from Philly's remarkable start (they certainly are a potent football team), or any of the other teams I've mentioned, for that matter. All of the teams I've listed have tremendous upsides. I also am not giving excuses to why the Panthers lose. I'm not saying the league is out to get them, or anything like that. I am saying that if you give Philly a schedule as hard as they earned from last year, and they are more likely to be 5-2 or 4-3. Or give New England the hardest schedule (which they've earned), instead of the 11th hardest, maybe their winning streak is only to 18 or 19 instead of 21. I'm also saying that some blatantly, and even acknowledged bad calls against the NFC Champions, called correctly, take the Panthers from 1-6 to 3-4 or maybe even 4-3.

While the NFL does have more parity than any other professional league, "parity" to them might be a false hope that your team will achieve what they are capable of, while the teams that line to coffers of the NFL executives continue to win.

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