January 18, 2014 1 Comment
By Mark Yost
Tomorrow is the NFL Conference Championships and I don’t think there is any question that much of the country will be riveted to the games between the Boston Patriots (I refuse to call them “New England”) and the Denver Broncos, and the San Francisco 49ers and the Seattle Seahawks. Both games will produce the NFL’s best ratings of the season until the Super Bowl, which beats everything on TV year after year.
But the more important question is “Why?” Why do fans care so much about the NFL playoffs?
Being a junior member of the small (and mostly ignored) cadre of American sports economists, I would argue that it’s simply a matter of supply and demand. There are only 16 NFL regular-season games and nearly every one counts (unless you’re the Oakland Raiders or Minnesota Vikings), The net result is that when the shortest professional sports season comes to an end in a few weeks, fans will still be clamoring for more. What other league can say that? Not many.
So if the NFL has the perfect season, shouldn’t the other leagues take a cue from America’s most-successful sports franchise? I think they should.
So here’s my proposal: The NBA and NHL should cut their seasons to just 20 games, and the NCAA should cut the men’s basketball schedule to just 10 games. Major League Baseball should keep its schedule the way it is. Why? Because even with the ridiculously expanded baseball playoffs, winning the most games out of a 162-game season still means something. (And this is my column and I say so.)
So let’s look at the NBA and the NHL. The seasons are roughly 80 games long. Both seasons start in October and it’s painfully clear by mid-November which teams are going to make the playoffs. Yes, occasionally a team (the Chicago Blackhawks come to mind) will have a remarkable second half of the season and go on to win the league championship. But mostly, fans know who’s got it and who doesn’t early on in the season. Yet, fans are forced to wade through another five months of mostly unimportant games to get to the playoffs. Is this any way to run a railroad (or sports league)?
Look at the NBA. It’s mid-January, the season is half over and the Chicago Bulls are in second place in the Central Division of the Eastern Conference. Their overall record is 18-20, putting them 13 games back of the Indiana Pacers, who are 31-7 and have the best record in the league. In the Northwest Division of the Western Conference, the Utah Jazz are 17 games back of first-place Portland. Do we really need another 40 games to figure out that the Portland Trailblazers are going to the NBA playoffs and the Utah Jazz aren’t?
Same goes for the NHL. We’re two-thirds of the way through the season and the Buffalo Sabres are 30 points behind my mother’s beloved Boston Bruins. The Islanders are 35 points behind the Penguins. Does anyone think the Sabres or Islanders have a chance of making the NHL postseason?
So why not make these overly long seasons more fan-friendly? Maybe my proposed 20-game NBA and NHL seasons are a bit drastic. OK, make them 30 games.
College basketball is even more ridiculous. The Syracuse Orangemen, led by that paragon of student-athletics honesty and integrity, Jim Boeheim, is 17-0. How did they get there? By beating cream-puff teams like Cornell (82-60), Colgate (69-50), SUNY-Binghamton (93-65), and Eastern Michigan (70-48). Does Syracuse really need to play 31 regular-season games, about half of them against schools that haven’t beaten them since Eisenhower was president? Why not have a 10-game college basketball season against serious opponents? It’s enough time for the team to gel (or should be), make some adjustments, then go right into March Madness? That’s what everyone wants to see anyway, right? Seriously, there are some good college basketball games from December-February, but most are just filler until March, right?
Of course, this idea exists nowhere but inside my head. More importantly, the chances of it happening are about as likely as Transylvania beating Kentucky in basketball. It’ll never happen. Why? Because of money.
None of these leagues are going to give up their TV money, which today makes up the lion’s share of their revenue stream. And the teams aren’t going to pass on a chance to sell you an over-priced seat, a stale hot dog, and a warm beer – all for the low, low price of $531.50 (oh, and don’t forget $30 for parking). Even if it’s just to see Louisville beat Hofstra (97-69).