The NFL draft allows a cabal of billion-dollar companies to control the labor market for an entire industry. The draft caps young workers’ earnings, mandates which company they work for, where they’ll live, and how long it will be until they’re able to seek a market-value wage.
And I’m all for it.
Because for all the B.S. that comes out of the league office, all the spin and positioning and turd-polishing and apologia for a League of people with more money than sense? On this issue, the company line is right.
While today’s NFL is all about extracting every dollar from its world-blanketing legion of fanatics, the early NFL was all about credibility–convincing people the product on the field was worth investing their time, attention, and money in.
That the latter became the former in the span of a lifetime is testament to how well they did it.
The trick was collectivism. They split all ticket sales 60/40 between the home and away team–so the Packers of tiny Green Bay, WI pulled down big-city revenue wherever they played, and the Bears couldn’t hoard too much money by selling out Wrigley Field. Later, the teams would agree to split all retail merchandise sales and TV money Even Steven.
The draft works the same way: By giving the weakest squads dibs on the best young talent, even the crummiest team’s fortunes can quickly change–and powerhouse dynasties not run by Bill Belichick will crumble sooner rather than later.
Players fought long and hard for true free agency, with work stoppages and lawsuits alike. In 1992, they got it–but the league’s combination of revenue sharing, a hard salary cap, and a talent draft ensured that money alone wouldn’t ever make a consistent winner.
In fact, the players’ union fought hard during the 2011 lockout to cap and slot rookie salaries. Why? During the Aughties, eams desperate to sign their own Jay Berwangers before the season started had been lavishing market- and record-setting contracts on players who often wouldn’t play well enough to earn a second one. These deals were subverting the whole purpose of the draft: Perennially bad teams gifted with multiple high draft picks
found themselves just as cap-strapped as top teams loaded with proven talent.
So why not scrap it all, then? No draft, no cap, just players getting paid whatever salaries they can negotiate?
Well, because we know how that story ends: Money equals wins equals money equals wins equals money.
Just look at the English Premier League: Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea in 2003
, shoveled billions of Euros into the furnace of a trophy-making machine, and proved that the only real way to change an English soccer club’s fortunes is selling it to someone with a bigger fortune.
But back here in the good old U.S. of A., the Cincinnati Bengals–notoriously run on the league’s skimpiest budget
–were gifted Joe Burrow in 2020, took his college teammate in 2021, and immediately broke the league’s longest conference-title-game drought on the way to very nearly winning the Super Bowl.
Sure, they lost to an L.A. Rams team that’s as close to a cut-checks, win-games mercenary team as is possible to assemble in the NFL, and is owned by the same Stan Kroenke who owns the Premier League’s Arsenal–But Vegas thinks the Bengals and Rams are equally likely to win the next Super Bowl
(neither are the favorite).
When top young professional prospects were being forced to generate billions for NCAA institutions, without compensation? Yeah, they should be able to seek their fortune afterwards. But when top football talents with multiple years of college eligibility left are getting six-figure transfer deals
(and middling players are getting enough to live high on the dorm-room hog and send some money back home), then the league should still be able to allocate their services in a way that keeps every single fanbase engaged all year ‘round–and keeps the revenue streams that fill players’ salary-cap pool flowing year after year, generation after generation.