Profits produced by parity

Posted: Tuesday, September 11, 2001

There's a reason every team in the NFL is raking in money with a shovel.

It's not because they trimmed the budget by hiring replacement officials or because, as pro football TV maven John Madden complained heading into the weekend, the league was skimping on promotional costs for the start of the regular season.

''Baseball has opening day with bunting in the stadiums,'' Madden said. ''There should be a celebration in the NFL.''

Somebody please fill John in. Every week in the NFL is already a celebration -- if you're lucky enough to have a piece of the action. It usually erupts somewhere along that short walk to the bank Monday morning to deposit a share of the take. Who needs bunting when you've got a formula that's already moving product off the shelves faster than bottled water?

When he was commissioner, the late Pete Rozelle was always pushing parity. The salary cap was an idea whose time hadn't yet arrived, but Rozelle convinced the owners to accept the next best thing -- revenue sharing -- for the sake of competitive balance. Yet even he couldn't have known things would turn out this well.

The last seven Super Bowls were won by six different teams. Four teams have gone from worst to first in their divisions in the past four seasons, part of a trend that has seen 21 different teams claim the 24 division titles available over that same span. Fans of all but the dozen or so top-spending baseball teams know by the end of spring training that things are going to turn out badly. The start of the NFL season, though, still feels like a lottery.

So it seemed one more time Sunday. The hapless Chicago Bears almost took down the Baltimore Ravens, the league's defending Super Bowl champions. The San Diego Chargers, who went 1-15 the season before, hammered the Washington Redskins, once rumored to be the best team money could buy. The Carolina Panthers, whose three quarterbacks totaled zero NFL career completions, beat the league's ''Quarterback U.,'' the Minnesota Vikings. Even the perennially inept Cincinnati Bengals won, beating New England, giving their fans a reason to tune in next week.

All is not well around the league, but after a rockier-than-usual off-season, it's getting close. Replacement officials working in place of regular crews locked out in a lengthening labor dispute didn't make any game-deciding blunders, though they produced enough lowlights for a blooper reel.

A microphone inadvertently left on revealed one replacement wasn't sure whether to let the clock run after a call and several others hadn't yet committed all 70 of the rules differences between the pro and college games. The crew in Dallas nearly upstaged President Bush by staging their own coin toss, unaware that the league had arranged to have the chief executive do it live on the screen for all 10 early games.

Like everything else that happened Sunday, the league lucked out when the coin toss in Dallas, like the one on Bush's lawn in Washington, D.C., came up tails.

There was some confusion on the sidelines as well, but it had nothing to do with strategy or assignments. In its never-ending search for new revenue stream, the league switched to a new uniform supplier this season. That prompted the previous supplier to remind those players with current endorsement deals -- about 80 percent of the league total -- they could be cut off for wearing the wrong brand of hat.

Sporting-goods companies wasn't the only thing the league changed, either. In what looks like a move to soften its image, the NFL is swapping out its old macho slogan, ''Feel the power,'' and making much less-judgmental ''This is what it's all about'' the centerpiece of this season's ad campaign.

What it's all about is what the NFL has always been about -- turning a profit. The only thing that's changed is how much more sophisticated and sure-handed the proprietors have become. While its rivals at MLB, the NBA and NHL are hamstrung with problem franchises, the Wall Street Journal took a considered look at the bottom lines of NFL teams and concluded every one was likely to make money.

The Ravens, whose revenues climbed nearly 20 percent as a result of their Super Bowl success, made one of the bigger gains. More revealing was the fact that success on the field had very little to do with profitability. Only six of the 10 highest-grossing teams had winning records last season.

Sometimes, as the start of what looks like another wildly profitable NFL seasons suggests, the illusion of being able to win sells just as well as winning itself.

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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