NFL Parity Works

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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.

The heart of the NFL playoffs kicks off this weekend. Four great games, eight talented and tough teams, terrific story lines running throughout. Now this is the way a sports league should be run. The New York Times has called the NFL "socialized football," referring to the system of orchestrating a weak team's season to do well by making their schedule as soft as possible, while stretching a tough team through a rigorous line-up of opponents. "Socialized" in this case is a synonym for "parity".

No other pro league in American sports works parity as well as does the NFL. Most years, 28 of the 32 teams across the country can harbor viable hope that their footballers will wind up in the playoff hunt. Last year's woeful Dolphins turned 07's abysmal drought into this year's high-octane success. Two years ago, three teams that were dead last in their divisions the previous season turned their fate around and made it to the post season. In baseball, the occasional fairy dust settles over the diamond of an unlikely team, as happened this past year down in Tampa, but it's been a long time since the good folks of Pittsburgh or Kansas City or D.C. have had reason to plan bundling up for some October action. In the NBA, we pretty much know at the start of the season who's going to still be in the game down the home stretch. With the NFL, the once-a-week format is not only dramatic unto itself, but parity dictates an urgency every single week, from the opening fall kick-off to the sixteenth game in December.

222 million people, or three of 4 Americans, tuned in to pro football this season. Ratings for last year's playoffs (the playoffs, mind you, not the SuperBowl) doubled those for the World Series, tripled ratings for the NBA playoffs. More women have watched the SuperBowl the last several years than have watched the Academy Awards.

It's a near-perfect sports product, the NFL, and the parity is what lies at the heart of its tremendous appeal. In most leagues, when the sport's superstar goes down to injury early in the season, the execs roll around in their glass towers in anguish. This year superstar-crossover celebrity Tom Brady, quarterback of the high-profile New England Patriots, went down early, went down hard, and was lost for the year. At the same time, the pro player with the highest public Q, or recognizable and likeable quotient, the Colts' Peyton Manning, had a miserable start. Well, not only did Manning rally like the champion he is and wind up the League's overall Most Valuable Player, but a plethora of versatile quarterbacks scrambled, threw bombs, and finessed third downs to render Tom Brady a distant and fading memory. Rookies Joe Flacco of the Ravens and Matt Ryan of the Falcons were superlative. Veterans Chad Pennington and Drew Brees and Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers and Donovan McNabb and Eli Manning and Kerry Collins and Kurt Warner and Jake Del Homme were winners and leaders and played the position at a level that has been extremely exciting to watch. The PR machine, the Cowboys, was touted to maybe take it all this year. But did the League fall apart when the Cowboys did?

No. Parity works so well in the League that both the marquee individuals and the promotable teams can fall away without panic because right behind them comes a deep well of talent and charismatic characters, rushing and tackling and diving into the end zones...and into the post season.

Now don't even get me started on college football. Tonight, the Florida Gators play Oklahoma in Miami for the National title. But if the Coaches/Associated Press Poll then votes for USC or Texas or Utah as National Champs, tonight's game is meaningless. Is that any way to run a sports league?

This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.



Diana Nyad