We have lately become used to seeing professional football as a battlefield not only for athletes, but also for broader cultural and political issues, like domestic violence and political dissent in the workplace. But the most instructive parallel we can draw from the National Football League is not to the culture wars, but to the American economy. Even after a lengthy recovery, the economy seems incapable of generating broad prosperity. The NFL, despite controversies that have hurt viewership, remains extraordinarily competitive and profitable. This is due to three rules that the league's billionaire owners willingly live under.
The first rule is that teams in the biggest metro areas, with the largest fan bases and media markets, have to share revenue with teams in smaller metro areas. The second rule is that the teams with the best win-loss records get the last draft picks, and vice versa. The third rule is that the season schedule is determined not by individual team preferences but by formulas overseen by the NFL that assure that each team plays an equal number of home and away games against the maximum number of other teams. (The other pro sports leagues have versions of the same rules, but none are as strong as the NFL's.)
Now, imagine if the NFL scrapped these rules tomorrow. Without the revenue sharing, owners in the biggest cities would be able to buy up more of the best talent. Without the draft rules, teams with winning records this year would be more likely to win next year, and the year after that, while teams with losing records would have a tough time ever catching up. And without the league controlling scheduling, teams would negotiate game calendars among themselves to maximize their revenues rather than the number of other teams they play.
Under this scenario, what would the game be like ten, twenty, thirty years from now? Well, the teams from the big cities--the New York Giants, the Houston Texans, the Chicago Bears--would probably go from sucking to winning. Smaller-market teams that have been highly competitive in recent years--like the Indianapolis Colts, the New Orleans Saints, and the Green Bay Packers--would become consistent losers. Over time, some of these smaller-market teams might even fold for lack of revenue. Meanwhile, the same three or four teams would bring home the Super Bowl trophy every year. The game as a whole would be less interesting. It would draw fewer fans and generate less overall revenue. But...