Market Size and Competitive Balance in the MLB and NFL (Part 3)

This is the third of a three part series on the effects of market size and the NFL and Major League Baseball. Please refer back to part one and part two for previous discussion.

Thirty years ago, the NFL was a different. There were two teams in Los Angeles. There were no teams in Charlotte, Indianapolis, Nashville, or Jacksonville. There was no salary cap, but there was no free agency either.  While there were obviously huge cities in the United States, the gap between the biggest markets and the smallest was not nearly so vast as it is today.

In 1994, free agency hit the NFL.  Previously, the NFL was a league dominated by dynasties.  From 1972 to 1994, every franchise in the NFL that won a Super Bowl would win at least one more within six seasons except for the Bears.  When a team hit Super Bowl caliber, they stayed there.  From 1982 to 1997, the NFC dominated the NFL winning all but one Super Bowl (the 1984 Raiders).  The NFL had regular season and post season parity right up until the Super Bowl.  When it came time to hoist Lombardi, however, new comers were unwelcome.

That dominance was reflected in the standings. The top teams owned the NFL and the top teams were all located in the largest cities.  Note how different this chart looks from the chart from 1995-2010.  The market order (as described in part two) for 1978 to 1993 was adjusted slightly with Detroit being a large market and Houston a medium market for that time period.  The columns “% to make playoffs” and “% to win Super Bowl” refer to the chances an individual team would have accomplished the feat in any given year


1978-1993 Win % % to make playoffs % to win Super Bowl
Large Markets .530 44.8% 7.7%
Medium Markets .507 45.8% 0%
Small Markets .458 29.1% 1.4%
1995-2010 Win % % to make playoffs % to win Super Bowl
Large Markets .507 39.4% 3.5%
Medium Markets .482 37.5% 1.6%
Small Markets .506 45.6% 4.7%

*1994 was omitted because of a data quirk involving baseball. If it had been included, it would have been in the 1995-2010 section. The large market 49ers won the title.

The only medium or small market team to win the Super Bowl from 1978-1993 was the Pittsburgh Steelers.  The other 14 titles were split between the Giants, Raiders, Bears, Redskins, and 49ers.

These results are shocking.  To be perfectly honest, I find this a difficult result to account for.  The simple explanation is that salary cap altered the landscape of the NFL, preventing big city teams from dominating as they had in the past. Even a cursory glance shows that the prior to 1994, the NFL was the exclusive domain of the large market team.

There’s just one problem with that reading: there was no free agency. The large market teams couldn’t outspend everyone for talent. The mother of all ironies is that this same stretch saw small market teams like the Bills go to four consecutive Super Bowls.  The Bengals went twice.  The medium market Broncos went three times, but none of those teams ever managed to actually win the Super Bowl. Small markets competed in the old system just fine, but they couldn’t break through in the end.

How did a system with little to no opportunity to outspend other teams and strong revenue sharing produce results so lopsided toward the biggest markets?

I have no idea. 

Did the reputation of the cities influence the outcome of games?

Was it just that Walsh drafted Montana and Cook hired Joe Gibbs?

If anyone wants to look at this data as proof positive the salary cap made the NFL small-market friendly, that’s certainly possible.  I’d love to hear an explanation of how the large markets dominated without free agency, however.

What made it all change? Was it really free agency and the salary cap that did it?

There might be other explanations.

For one, the league ‘downsized’ in the ’90s.  The L.A. Rams moved to small market Saint Louis.  The NFL expanded to small markets in Jacksonville and Charlotte.  The Houston Oilers, a stable successful franchise, moved to small market Nashville only to be replaced in large market Houston by a dreadful Texans franchise. More small market clubs titled the balance of power.

There is a second possible explanation. In analyzing the team by team differences between 1978-1993 and 1995-2010, the biggest differences come from the performance of two small market clubs: Green Bay and Indianapolis.

In the first era, the Packers and Indianapolis Colts combined to go 167-238 (.412).  They made the playoffs 3 times with no titles.

In the second era, the Packers and Colts combined to go 323-189 (.631). They made the playoffs 24 times and won 3 Super Bowls (losing two others).

We know that free agency played a major roll in the Packers resurgence thanks to their signing of Reggie White, but it was basically irrelevant to the rise of the Colts.  If anything, the Colts were slowed by the salary cap, routinely spending at or beyond cap limits. 

The shift from large market dominance to small market dominance might be explainable simply by Brett Favre and Peyton Manning reviving the Packers and Colts. Dan Snyder ruining the Redskins hasn’t hurt either, as they went from one of the best teams in football to one of the worst. When deal with bins of 8-10 teams, the fortunes of one or two dramtically skew the results for the group.

Finally, the last possibility is that the introduction of free agency hasn’t radically altered the dynastic nature of the NFL at all. The NFL is still dominated by a few franchises.  The Steelers have been to three Super Bowls in 6 years. The Colts have been to two. The Patriots have gone five times. The Super Bowl itself is simply a much more competitive game than it ever was before which may say more about modern game planning than team strength. After all the 2007 Patriots were clearly a vastly superior team to the 2007 Giants, but lost.  Perhaps free agency has weakened the dominant teams just enough that they don’t win as often as the should in the post-season.  If the Colts hadn’t lost so many linebackers and linemen, might they have won another Super Bowl or two?  The recent introduction of what appears to be total randomness into the NFL playoffs could be the lone explanation for the change.

Most importantly, fans should realize that the NFL used to be a top heavy league until very recently and will very likely cycle back around to that eventually. If just one or two Hall of Fame caliber quarterbacks get drafted by top markets, the pendulum will swing. Currently the best quarterbacks in football almost all play in small markets. Manning, Roethlisberger, Rodgers, Rivers, and Brees all play in small (or mid) markets. Of the top QBs, only Brady plays in a big market. Of those quarterbacks, only Brees arrived at his team via free agency, and even he was not necessarily highly sought after due to a shoulder injury.  Small markets hit the jackpot in the draft over the past 15 years and have dominated the NFL because of it.

All it takes to change that is for the Redskins or Texans to take the next great passer.