Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Expansion and player supply in sports

By Rick Morris

In a recent conversation with FDH analyst Jon Adams, we spoke of the likelihood that the NFL would expand in the coming years rather than relocating an existing team to meet their goal of placing a franchise back in Los Angeles. I mentioned that I could see this happening in tandem with an expansion of the schedule, as NFL commissioner Roger Goodell seems to have successfully floated the trial balloon of a 17th game played overseas by every team. Jon rightfully expressed displeasure at the notion of a move to 34 teams accompanying a 17-week schedule, since we can already see how the league's talent base was watered down noticeably by expansion in 1999 and 2002.

Goodell, a sharp operator, is probably pushing the league's global presence at least in part because the league does not have a strong enough global presence long-term to staff the number of teams they want to have. But they are putting the cart before the horse a bit if they intend to expand the league also in the next decade.

Expansion in other sports was initially accompanied by cries that it had come too soon and too dramatically -- and would later trigger calls for contraction. But as the talent pool caught up to the number of jobs available, equilibrium returned in these situations.

In baseball, the 1960s triggered a wave of expansion that continued into 1977, then resumed in 1993 and 1998. While it used to be fashionable to speak of how the game had become watered down, this talking point has become muted, even in terms of pitching. The international expansion of the game has brought players from all corners of Latin America, the Pacific Rim and even a few other corners of the world. Besides, baseball historians from groups such as SABR have disabused thinking people of the notion that players such as Babe Ruth had it harder because they faced only a handful of teams and therefore, the "best of the best on a daily basis." None of those teams included players of color and as such, the greatest players in the world were subdivided into three groups that played against only themselves: the American League, the National League and the Negro Leagues (except for the AL and NL in the All-Star Game and the World Series). But the overall talent level of top players wasn't much different back then if we think beyond Major League Baseball and take the top Negro League teams into consideration. As such, any advantages Babe Ruth may have had in not having to face 13 other AL pitching staffs were negated by not having to face Negro League hurlers.

The winter sports of basketball and hockey likewise faced troubling questions when they expanded rapidly from the late 1980s onward. Both clearly moved far beyond the pool of worthy talent available when they placed franchises far and wide and the NHL in particular faced much criticism for their "Sunbelt Strategy" of putting down roots in sunny markets completely unaccustomed to their product. But those complaints have quieted in recent years, as both have benefited from a global talent pool now available to them. Even traditional hockey fans in Canada inclined to believe that the game was never better and tighter than it was when there were only half as many teams must admit that the lack of players available back then from Iron Curtain countries worked against the advancement of the sport. And in the NBA, the international players have led the charge back towards fundamentals and away from the disturbing drift towards "streetball" and in so doing, have pushed it in the right direction. Proving that a blind squirrel really does find an acorn now and again, ESPN columnist and mighty self-parody Bill Simmons opines this week that the NBA talent level is at its highest point since the early 1990s -- and he's right.

Now, the NFL truly is the biggest and the baddest of the American sports leagues. It seems truly bulletproof in terms of continued viability at this level. But Goodell should ponder the lessons of other sports before deciding to bump the league up to 34 teams. Continued overseas games, while aggravating to many jingoistic, chest-thumping, Neanderthal football fans, are a necessary evil in terms of developing a global talent base. The 17th game on the schedule may prove unavoidable with this being the case. Because football takes such a back seat to soccer internationally (inexplicably, I might add!), the product must be exposed at a micro level to people all over the world so that the league can cultivate young fans who aspire to play on Sundays. While the NHL, NBA and MLB trail the NFL in popularity and clout, at least they can truthfully state that their leagues are fully stocked with players who deserve to be there, thanks to the integration of top talent all over the world. The NFL won't be able to say the same, much less consider further expansion as a viable consideration, until they begin to feature talent from Asia, Europe, Africa and all areas of the world.

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