I am raining on the big parade by equating the Super Bowl with trade deficits, budget shortfalls, state bonds on the edge of default, and unemployment close to ten percent. But if thirty-second ads that cost $2.7 million or The Black Eyed Peas at halftime can’t lift the economy out of its doldrums, how can we expect the same miracles from Troy Polamalu or Aaron Rodgers?
From the perch of anyone staring at a TV or looking down from a skybox, what industry could be more bullish for America than the National Football League? Revenue for this year will top out between eight and nine billion dollars, which is roughly shared among the thirty-two professional teams. Does it not speak of economic recovery when even the fan-owned Green Bay Packers, with their retro stadium and rust-belt market, are given a market valuation in Forbes Magazine at more than $1 billion?
How can it be fourth-and-long for America if, at the Super Bowl, tickets on the thirty yard line cost $10,366? Or if half of a sky box is fetching $384,993 at the Dallas stadium, which itself cost $1.5 billion to build?
For the partners in what Theodore Roosevelt might have called “the football trust,” the economics of the game puts every NFL team owner in the Super Bowl. That the Buffalo Bills chose to pocket their subsidies instead of investing in a quarterback who didn’t graduate from Harvard is their business, and a good one at that. In 2009, they earned $28 million while the New York Giants, fresh from a Super Bowl win, only made $2 million.
A closer look at football economics, however, makes the touchdown business a perfect metaphor for an industry—not unlike the nation—that talks up competition, “good conduct”, fair play, and free enterprise, but then goes to the subprime bank with hand-offs from sweetheart contracts, congressional subsidies, tax breaks, restrictive labor agreements, and underwater municipal bonds.
Twenty-eight of the thirty-two NFL stadiums were financed with some public money, and eleven were built entirely on the dole. The NFL has enjoyed something like $10 billion in stadium subsidies in recent years. I wonder how many depleted state and city governments (Cincinnati gave the Bengals $450 million for their stadium) wish that a financial booth review could challenge the ruling on the field. As China built steel mills and high-speed rail, American cities went with skyboxes and entertainment venues that are used on about twelve days a year.
The MVP of subsidies for the NFL is its antitrust exemption, which limits the number of teams at the professional level. Were free enterprise to govern the sport, instead of a medieval guild, anyone could put together a club.
The NFL would simply be the best thirty-two teams in any given year. Teams that were improving would move up; bad teams, like the Browns, would be relegated to lesser leagues. Golf is played by this principle. Every town and city in America could compete.
With Congress stuffing the competition at the line, the NFL enjoys a football monopoly, which allows it to dictate the prices of everything from official jerseys to cable subscriptions. “You want the NFL?....Go to the NFL...with about ten grand for an upper deck seat.”
To be sure, the NFL has an engaging product and, if you can sit through the hours of time-outs and commercials, even some exciting games. But given that football is staged to sell things, what trots out on the field at the Super Bowl has more in common with billboards or beach banners than with sport.
The advertisers at this year’s Super Bowl, paying $90,000 a second, include Volkswagen, Bud Light, Cars.com, Mars, Pepsi, Pizza Hut, CareerBuilder, Coca-Cola, and no doubt the knowing leer of the Viagra man, looking over his wife as if she were a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
Their products will be seen in forty-eight million homes and by almost 100 million Americans. Fifty million Americans, myself among them, watched the first Super Bowl in 1967, in which a hung-over Max McGee twice took it to the house against the Kansas City Chiefs. The networks thought so little of the spectacle that no videotape of the game remains.
The Super Bowl is a windfall for caterers, pizza joints that deliver, beer distributors, and guacamole middle men, not to mention the Dallas escorts who are charging $24,000 for a week of bump-and-run. But does it not also suggest a spectator nation, day dreaming about cars, sex, and getting a job?
Under the current NFL contract, which expires March 3, the salary cap for each team is between 56 and 60 percent of the league’s revenues. The fans are told that the cap is to insure parity in the league, so that on any give Sunday the Panthers might not lose by more than twenty points. The salary cap also keeps the word "free" out of the enterprise, and fixes the game to insure a profit for every team owner (except maybe the Lions).
Few NFL player contracts have much in the way of long-term financial guarantees, and teams can cut veterans, even those who have sustained serious injuries, to clear “space” from their cap.
Very much in the spirit of earlier monopolists, NFL owners are not content with their billion dollar team valuations, subsidized stadiums, cozy TV contracts, and parking lot rebates.
Now owners are asking the players' association to accept an 18 percent pay cut in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement. Among the owners’ negotiating demands are a reduction in player salaries, especially for rookies, and an addition of two more games to the schedule.
Owners are threatening to lockout the players (as if they were Pullman workers) and suspend football for next year. Or the games could be played with scabs, as happened in 1987. Shutdown losses would run into the billions.
Fans can only hope that Taft-Hartley would be invoked to keep the Oakland Raiders on the field, or that President Obama would pass a Football Recovery and Mall Consumption Act to rush stimulus money into the red zone.
After such a diatribe, will I be watching Super Bowl XLV? Of course I will. From the first Super Bowl (which was really an exhibition game at which tickets were $12) onward, I have seen some or all of the other forty-three games. Along with cheering McGee, I have seen the Packers’ Donny Anderson knock out the Chiefs’ Fred Williamson (aka “The Hammer”), the reigns of Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana, and even those four terrible Super Bowls that the Buffalo Bills lost in a row.
As a fan of the New York Jets, I remember Super Bowl III more clearly than some others. (As Joe Namath said, “I never drink at halftime.”) But I know where I was when the “Refrigerator” (William Perry) scored in Super Bowl XX, and I cannot read anything about Armenia without thinking about Miami Dolphin kicker Garo Yepremian and that absurd pass.
Despite my institutional memory for the Super Bowl, I wonder whether it makes sense to elevate a sporting event into a national consumer revival meeting (“brought to you by Cialis...when shopping isn’t enough”). Nor do I think that the hoopla fulfills Vince Lombardi’s dreams, unless they involved Janet Jackson.
Although he wasn’t speaking about economic competitiveness, former Washington Redskin and current TV announcer Joe Theismann revealed a truth about the big game when he said, “Nobody in football should be called a genius. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein.”
Photo by americanistadechiapas
Matthew Stevenson is the author of Remembering the Twentieth Century Limited, a collection of historical essays. He is also editor of Rules of the Game: The Best Sports Writing from Harper's Magazine.