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Would the NFL be better without a Salary Cap?

Driving into work this morning, I was listening to Mike and Mike, and Trey Wingo was hosting in place of Golic. Amidst all of the Masters talk, they had a quick, 5 minute blurb talking about the NFL, since Wingo is the host of NFL Live on the Worldwide Leader. He was making two arguments, and, I have to say, I agree with both of them.

His first argument is that there should be a rookie salary structure, similar to the one used by the NBA. Here are the salaries for the 2008 Draft. Teams can't get yanked around by agents, or by the players. They know, up front, how much each player will make, if they are a first round draft pick. The NFL should have adopted this years ago. Our own GM Bill Polian is very much behind this idea, and he sums up my opinion much better than I ever could:

"The draft is designed to either allow the weakest teams based on record to choose the best players, or - if they choose not to take a particularly player - to gather a bunch of picks to further accelerate their growth and competitiveness," Polian said. "That's what Mr. Halas and Commissioner Bell intended way back when. That has now been skewed completely by the cost of the picks in the Top 15 picks in the first round.

"Now, you face the prop of saying, `If I'm after the first pick and I have to pay 30 million for it, how much do I want to give up in addition to that?' And if you fail with that pick, your franchise is saddled with an albatross that you can't get rid of for who knows how long? It's completely changed because of the cost of those picks. In my view, that's wrong and should change.

While having the #1 pick in the draft means you had an absolutely awful year, it should always be a good thing to have that pick, and many teams should be looking to trade into that pick to get the best player available. This year, however, is the complete opposite. Miami has so many holes to fill, it would make sense for them to trade out of the pick, and pick up 2-3 picks for their #1. However, nobody wants to touch their pick with a 10 foot pole, which is kind of sad. The only time now teams want to trade up for the #1 pick is for that sure-fire, franchise quarterback, like Michael Vick, or Tim Couch, or Alex Smith (the jury's still out, but it doesn't look like a favorable ruling is coming)...

His second point, which I'm guessing many people will disagree with, is that the NFL no longer needs the salary cap to succeed. As my favorite team is one of the smaller markets in the NFL, I should be up in arms about this, how it will hurt the competitive balance, etc. Wingo made a very good point about revenue sharing: Every game is televised on network television, or on ESPN, and the television deal is for the entire NFL, not each individual team. Each team shares the TV money equally, so there is no advantage to being the Giants with a huge market, or the Colts with a small market.

This is spot on, and my argument for getting rid of the salary cap becomes null and void if the TV deal goes away. A team cannot go out on its own, create its own TV network, and decide it will only broadcast their games on this new network. This occurs in baseball, with the main culprits being the Yankees and Mets.

Speaking of baseball, this brings me to my next point: Baseball has no salary cap, and over the past 8 seasons, there have been 7 different World Series winners. While the Yankees have had the highest payroll 12 of the past 13 seasons (bet you can't guess which team had a higher one in that span), they didn't start seriously outspending the rest of the league until 2001. They have won the World Series 0 times since then. Here's a table of World Series winner, payroll, rank of payroll, and highest payroll team in the league:

Year Champ Payroll Rank Highest Payroll
2000 Yankees $92,938,260 1 Yankees $92,938,260
2001 Diamondbacks $85,247,999 8 Yankees $112,287,143
2002 Angels $61,721,667 15 Yankees $125,928,583
2003 Marlins $48,750,000 25 Yankees $152,749,814
2004 Red Sox $127,298,500 2 Yankees $184,193,950
2005 White Sox $75,178,000 13 Yankees $208,306,817
2006 Cardinals $88,891,371 11 Yankees $194,663,079
2007 Red Sox $143,026,214 2 Yankees $189,639,045

Obviously, the NFL is not MLB, but it can be shown that in another major sport, without a salary cap, parity can still occur. By far, the two biggest proponents of abolishing the salary cap would be Jerry Jones and Daniel Snyder. Jones had much success winning Super Bowls without a salary cap, and hasn't won a playoff game since 1995. Snyder likes to play fantasy football with his money, and has not been very good at talent selection via free agency.

What would the differentiating factors be without a salary cap?

  • Stadium attendance. I think this is a non-factor. Just about every team sells out every game, save some of the awful teams towards the end of the year. Green Bay is by far the smallest market, and I wouldn't get a chance at season tickets until I'm at least 65 years old, because the wait list is so long. The revenue they make on gameday will not change regardless of a salary cap or not.
  • Merchandise. This definitely can be a separator, but not necessarily. Manning's jersey, at one time, was the best selling one in the NFL. It is #4 right now, according to this article by CNBC. Of the top 20 best-sellers, only 3 have played for more than 1 team, and that includes Brett Favre. The Colts have 2 players in the top 20 (Sanders). There is obviously much more merchandise than jerseys, and a team in a bigger city should, in theory, have more fans buying more things. I don't see this much more than a slight advantage to big market teams. The Packers and Steelers seem to have pretty good followings for not being large cities.
  • Owner. This is, by far, the biggest differentiator. But think about it for a second. The owner is just 1 person (or sometimes 2 or 3 or a range of investors). What if (completely hypothetical, as I don't see the Irsay's selling anytime soon) Mark Cuban decided he wanted to buy the Colts. He'd spend just like Jerry Jones or Daniel Snyder. If the owner wants to spend his money on players, he can, no matter the size of the market he's in. Chicago is the second biggest market in the NFL. The McCaskey family does not like to spend money. If the salary cap went away, they still wouldn't spend money, even though they are rolling in money hand over fist. What if an owner walks in and says "We are going to run this like a non-profit; Every dime we make will be spent on the franchise. Our payroll will be second-to-none." Will this happen, probably not. Could it happen, certainly.

Even though I'd be ok without a salary cap, I don't see it going away anytime soon. I would think the majority of the owners want it, so they don't have to be ridiculed by their respective fan bases to spend money on talent. The rookie salary cap should, and I think will, be in place within the next 2 years. It is in the best interest of the NFL, and certainly in the best interest of all the veteran players in the NFL, who work their tail off, then get cut in training camp because they gave $30 million to a rookie who has never played a snap in the NFL.