According to betting odds, we are headed for a Green Bay-Pittsburgh Super Bowl. The NFL would have to be pleased by such a match-up, as it would pit two of the largest, most passionate fan bases in the league. The optics of thousands of Cheeseheads and Terrible Towels descending on Dallas, filling local hotels and driving up the secondary market for tickets, would make for a great event. Moreover, these two teams are consistent draws on television, so the NFL’s broadcast partners would be happy covering a Super Bowl with extra eyeballs.
Now think about this: Pittsburgh and Green Bay are two of the smallest media markets in the NFL. Pittsburgh is the 22nd largest MSA in the country, while Milwaukee is 39th. It’s a testament to the NFL’s structure that two of its most popular teams come from smaller MSAs. (One can make the same point regarding the Saints, who have been the “it” team over the past two years and hail from the 46th largest MSA. The Saints’ crowing achievement was winning a Super Bowl over the team from the 34th largest MSA.) This would never happen in baseball.
The immediate explanations for why teams from small markets are so successful are the salary cap and revenue sharing. Teams from the larger markets cannot leverage their natural advantages into success on the field because: (1) they can’t spend much more on players than their smaller rivals can; and (2) they can’t sign lucrative local TV deals based on being in bigger MSAs, as the NFL has national, evenly distributed TV contracts. Thus, when a team like the Jets makes it to the NFL’s final four, they are doing so on the basis of good player acquisitions and a smart head coach, as opposed to when one of the baseball teams from the nation’s largest MSA succeeds by virtue of the innovative “let’s identify the two best free agents and pay the most money for them.”
That said, there is another factor at play here that further distinguishes the NFL from MLB: the NFL does a much better job of mythologizing its past. The Steelers were one of my first two rooting interests. (In case you’re scoring at home, Virginia hoops with Ralph Sampson was the other.) I became a Steelers fan at age five in 1980 because my Mom would take me to the Charlottesville public library and I would read about Super Bowls. Because the Steelers had won twice as many Super Bowls as any other team at that time and they had cool helmets, a fan was born. My rooting interest was cemented by watching NFL Films videos of the Super Bowls. Super Bowl Sunday was nirvana for me because ESPN would run all of its half-hour Super Bowl programs in order, leaving me with the dilemma of when to watch and when to play outside. (The good Super Bowls to skip: V, VIII, and XI.) I suspect that I’m not especially unusual in this respect. NFL Films does a terrific job of selling the story of past champions. The Packers – the team that won the first two Super Bowls under Vince Lombardi – and the Steelers – the team that won four of six in the 70s – are the major beneficiaries of the gauzy treatment of the past.
Despite its reputation as a traditional, stuck-in-the-past sport, Major League Baseball doesn’t have any equivalent to NFL Films. MLB doesn’t create fans of the Big Red Machine or the Earl Weaver Orioles with string music and John Facenda. (If you want a modern example, compare the America’s Game series on NFL Network with the one-hour documentaries that MLB Network runs on specific baseball seasons. The former are outstanding; the latter are forgettable.) In the void left by MLB not producing features on its past that come close to the product of NFL Films, we end up with “blurry-eyed nostalgia about the Only Great Era In Baseball History, i.e. the time in which an especially narcissistic generation of New York writers were growing up.” Take it away, Scott Lemieux:
But what really gives away the show, I think, is the complaint about too many teams. In large measure, this complaint is about New York sportswriters craving a return to to what Ken Burns called “the Capital of Baseball” era — the 2/3rds of the 50s in which baseball was completely dominated by New York teams and large parts of the nation were deprived of major league baseball. This New York domination was terrible for baseball, of course, creating stagnating or declining attendance during a boom economy, but this is something we’re never supposed to notice. And to draw a line under it, he devotes another long paragraph to the elevently-billionth assertion that the Brooklyn Dodgers mattered more than any team has ever mattered to anyone ever, although this has nothing to do with either Willie Mays or the book under review.
In the end, the NFL ends up as the most popular league in the country because of its ability to create Steelers fans in Charlottesville, Virginia, whereas MLB experiences declining popularity because all it can offer is fetishization of when New York City had three teams instead of two. The NFL has a democratic structure in which teams from any market can win, whereas MLB has an oligarchy in which the only factor that prevents the rich teams from winning every year is the lottery nature of the playoffs.