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Why the NFL Should Be More Like NASCAR

In a manifesto for sports fans, two professors call for more merit and less monopoly.

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But this "entry by majority vote" is precisely what is happening with the major sports leagues in America. The governing bodies that set policies and rules are composed of team owners. This allows them to make decisions about what is best for on-field competition and their own financial gains. This creates a conflict of interest that is ultimately bad for both the game and the consumer.

The authors are well aware of their location in the academy (Ross teaches at Penn State and directs its Institute for Sports Law, Policy, and Research, while Syzmanski is at London's Cass Business School), and thus go to great lengths to demonstrate that theirs are real-world solutions. They use the case of NASCAR as an example of how a governing, for-profit body that is separate from the owners doesn't mean that either profits or competitiveness will suffer. On the contrary, NASCAR has thrived and become America's fastest-growing sport.

In many ways, their second solution is even more beneficial to the consumer. The importance of entry into a major league based on past performance will be evident to anyone who has seen or attended a game late in a season where the outcome has no baring. The play is lackluster and the fans are uninterested. There is, in other words, no competitive heat in the game. The system as it works now rewards the poor performing team by placing them that much closer to drafting the big prize the following year.

European soccer provides an example of an alternate model. A team's presence in the English Premier League from one year to the next is based on performance. A last place in the standings means that even a powerhouse like Manchester United could conceivably be demoted to a second-tier league. With entry by merit, the teams are forced to manage at a high level, lest they lose great financial gains. And the games played at the bottom of the rankings have the same competitive spirit as teams fighting for a championship. There is nothing like elimination to get the hearts of players and spectators pumping.

Ross and Syzmanski are well aware that these changes would mean a wholesale restructuring of the major leagues, which will not happen immediately. And so in the interim, they suggest some "half-loaf" ideas for change that involve giving more power to the commissioner of a league, following the model of Bill France in NASCAR and the late Pete Rozelle of the NFL, to make long-term decisions based on the needs of the league and the needs of the consumer and less so on the needs of an individual team.

Ross and Syzmanski's solutions are not going to make certain athletes less smug, make ticket prices significantly lower or slow down the ESPN juggernaut. But what it will do is shake up the major leagues' monopoly power and force teams to work harder at earning the consumer's rapidly stagnating and elusive dollar.

Sameer Pandya, formerly an assistant professor of English at Queens College, CUNY, is now a lecturer in the Department of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

 
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