A while back, Herb Kohl (D-WI) was wanting the government to get involved with NBC’s (mis)handling of the Olympic Games. To which, James Joyner responds:

The Olympics are not a public good. There’s no right whatsoever to see them unless you’ve paid for a ticket.

The initial problem here is that the Olympics proclaim themselves to be something of a public good. It’s not really a private affair. While NBC has the right to do with its broadcasting rights whatever it wishes, if the Olympics were what they proclaim to be, they would make sure that clauses included not just gobs and gobs of money, but also a certain level of accessibility. But the Olympics simply isn’t what it claims to be and there’s not much to be done. I’d leave it at that if Joyner hadn’t gone on to say:

Nor, for that matter, am I a fan of exclusivity deals. It’s annoying, for example, that the only way for me to watch Dallas Cowboys games that don’t happen to be on my local FOX affiliate is to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket, which in turn requires me to be a DirecTV customer. But, again, the NFL doesn’t owe me anything. I’m free to choose to take what they give me for free or to be held hostage to a single television provider; I’ve opted for the latter.

Here again we have an organization that proclaims itself as a public good when it’s convenient but then gets to nitty-gritty profit protection even at the expense of what would benefit the public. When it comes time to hold a team for ransom unless the taxpayers foot the bill for a nice new stadium, we get to hear about how much good the NFL does a community or a city. But then when it comes to cracking down on fans that use slogans not invented by the NFL or churches that fund-raise with Superbowl parties, well we all have to understand that they are a private business. Which, of course, they are. They are not the public good that they represent themselves as being.

The difference between the NFL and the Olympics, though, is that the NFL (along with MLB and NBA) relies on government and the people to do what they need to do. From the people they demand money for new stadia. From the government, they demand and receive broadcasting anti-trust exemptions. For them to demand anti-trust exemptions, in my mind they have certain obligations. By that I don’t mean “Give away all your games for free!” but I do mean that they ought to stop restrain from using their position as the nation’s premier football league in order to maximize profits at the expense of access in virtually all cases.

Exclusivity deals are a part of that. I half-believe that we’re headed to a future where the Superbowl is going to be a PPV event. They allow us to watch some games for free on network television and through various providers we can watch even more games with cable. Increasingly, though, the real money is with exclusive contracts. Not like with NBC and the Olympics, where nearly everybody gets NBC. And the same really goes with ESPN. The issue is with DirecTV, who pays a fortune not just to be able to show all the games, but to be the only one that is. Offering games on networks and cable is win/win because it increases availability and profit. The NFL’s arrangement with DirecTV increases one very much at the expense of the other.

The games have to be played on some network(s), but the availability of the network in question should be as much a factor as dollars and sense if they are to be a public good. The benefit that the consumer gets from the NFL’s relationship with ABC is pretty concrete. The benefit of their relationship with DirecTV only works if you believe that what’s good for the NFL is inherently and always good for the NFL fan.

Beyond that, the NFL’s restriction on the number of teams it has is another example. Right now there are 32 teams in a nation of roughly 310 million. That is the worst ratio the NFL has ever had and at every decade marker since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970 that ratio has gotten worse. This despite the fact that there are more avenues than ever for games to be shown on television. Cities considerably larger than NFL host cities were when they had teams do not get a team (and no, I’m not just referring to Los Angeles). Even now, there are cities without teams that are notably larger than cities with them (and not just New Orleans or Buffalo). In fact, there are between 7 and 10 markets larger than the bottom five current host cities. So why do the host cities still have those teams? In some cases because they got them when they were more vibrant locales (New Orleans, Buffalo) and or because of an intense potential fan-base (Jacksonville)

I see very little reason to believe that the NFL could not expand by a good half-dozen teams and maintain profitability. It’s not hard to figure out why they’re not itching to do so. The fewer teams, the less competition. The less the big market teams have to subsidize smaller-market teams so that the latter can stay competitive or split their own market. The easier it is to blackmail cities into building them stadiums or else they’ll move. The model is working for them. That doesn’t mean that it’s working for us.

I pick on the NFL mostly because it’s the most profitable. The others have pretty good excuses. The NBA is hemorrhaging money at the moment, the NHL learned the hard way how regional their sport is, and Major League Baseball has other problems on its plate. On the other hand, adding a half-dozen new teams would take a lot of the focus off of… other goings-on.

Category: Downtown, Theater

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5 Responses to The NFL and the Public Good

  1. Peter says:

    The NFL is not merely the world’s richest and most successful sports league, it’s also among the most successful businesses of any type. It has a worldwide monopoly, the antitrust protections you mention, the public stadium subsidies, the ability to dictate terms to broadcasters on a take-it-or-leave it basis, and last but not least it gets colleges to develop new talent at no cost to itself.

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