Time to Revisit Parity and the Playoffs?
Although still the kings of the sports and entertainment world, most agree that the NFL has been knocked down a few pegs and the business of professional football is suffering. Empty seats at NFL games have been sprouting like weeds around the country and dissatisfaction among the fans is rampant. When fans debate the causes of this decline, they most often point to the product on the field, particularly the stoppages caused by penalties and commercials, the dramatic improvement of the in-home football experience, and the protests of the players against civil injustice, which have been viewed by many fans, including the President, as attacks against the police, the military and the flag.
Parity or the lack thereof is seldom mentioned as a reason for declining attendance among the fan base, nor does parity seem to be a factor being considered by NFL owners in their efforts to stem the loss of fans and fan revenue. This may be a mistake. There is a proverb most of us have heard before: Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan. Perhaps when discussing the NFL, the sentiment should be changed to: Success has many fans, but failure is an empty seat.
The correlation between winning and fan satisfaction is difficult to deny. Take Jacksonville and Buffalo, for example. For years Jaguars’ management had to put tarps over approximately 30,000 seats at the stadium in order to claim a sellout so the game could be on television. Now, with success, comes many more fathers, and mothers; the Jaguars are removing the tarps because demand has risen with every Jags victory. Bills fans suffered for years in support of a team that simply could not qualify for the playoffs. With the Bengals dramatic last second victory over the Ravens, the Bills finally reached Nirvana and are showing their enthusiasm by showering the Bengals with gifts and throwing checks at the Bills ticket office for 2018 tickets. Winning makes fans happy, and, conversely, losing breaks hearts.
Just ask Ravens fans.
To be sure, the NFL has work to do in improving its product; many teams “in the hunt” still had empty seats at meaningful games. But winning is a start and it certainly would not cost the NFL to consider adjusting its playoff formula to increase the number of fans around the country who support teams with a legitimate chance of winning every year. Some teams, like the Jets for instance, have not been to the Super Bowl in fifty years. The Lions have never been. Perhaps the NFL should consider broadening its playoff tent so that more teams, and their fans, can have a shot at the big prize. Management might also consider awarding a compensatory draft pick, say at the end of the third round, to all teams that have not been to the playoffs or a Super Bowl in fifteen years.
Increase Playoff Slots from Six to Eight in each Conference
Although an anathema to NFL purists, increasing the number of playoff teams from six to eight may be the most effective way for NFL owners to lure wayward fans back to the game. Take the experience of Baltimore Ravens fans in 2018. The euphoria of making the playoffs provides a palpable lift to a community and the alternative, as we know all too well in Baltimore, can be demoralizing. For the owners, the critical factor in any decision to increase the number of playoff teams is that happy, satisfied fans spend money on their product. If the Ravens had made the playoffs, the Baltimore community would have a much different vibe this season. Even a first round loss has failed to dampen the spirits of Buffalo fans. More teams making the playoffs can be good for the fans, their communities and NFL business in general.
There would legal, policy and public relations hurdles to overcome with such a change, but desperate times require desperate measures. The NFL may feel that the time for an alteration to the playoff formula has arrived. The two most frequent arguments against increasing the playoff pool are player safety and dilution of the value of the regular season. To be sure, more teams playing an additional game, assuming the four division winners would play the four wild card teams in the first round, would be more wear and tear on the players. But additional compensation to the players, a reduction of pre-season games, or some other agreement, could make an increase in the playoff pool possible. As to the regular season, eight playoff teams per conference is still only 50% of the teams, and home field advantage is worth fighting for in the NFL, so the regular season games would still be important to teams’ Super Bowl prospects.
Award “Parity” pick to teams that have missed the Super Bowl or Playoffs
Enhancing parity by awarding additional draft picks to losing teams is an idea which also could be explored by NFL management. The current structure to insure parity is not working. New England has made the playoffs for 18 straight years. Pittsburgh is also a perennial winner in the NFL. These organizations should be saluted for their success, to be sure, but continual losing seasons by half the league is not smart business.
Winning does come in cycles. There was a time New England deserved its nickname the “Patsies” and Pittsburgh barely won during its first thirty years of existence. Ideally though, every NFL team should play in the Super Bowl at least once every 15 years. Awarding “Parity” picks, either for Super Bowl or playoff absence, would require much study and debate. But the possibility that a more balanced league would increase fan satisfaction should make the effort worthwhile. The chances that the owners and players might improve the game and increase revenue should make such a change a slam dunk.