Anyone who loves sports knows that the actual games on the field are only part of the fun of being a fan.
Offseason activity - trades, drafts, scandals - dominate the headlines just as much as the games themselves. And it makes sense - debating the potential of something is often more fun than watching the reality of it unfold.
While they would vehemently deny it, the sports leagues themselves are the model for an entrenched industry fighting to maintain its status quo and as long as sports remain profitable and a form of entertainment that people will pay to watch live, their incentive to change is nonexistent.
So let's try a thought experiment.
If I had my way I would enforce a rule that every contract in all four major leagues were only one year contracts.
That way everyone's a free agent, every year. Every team is assembled anew every offseason. And every team has a truly equal chance to compete, every year.
Players are rewarded continually for their actual performance and not on their potential. And the fans get to experience something new and exciting, all of the time.
Four reasons why this could work:
- It's great for the fans. Other than winning a playoff game, there's nothing more exciting for fans than when their team makes a big trade. And because the teams would be reconstituted every year, it means their team always has a shot.
- It's great for the media. Right now, sports commentators, writers and bloggers have to make up content for much of the offseason and then often get stuck covering a boring, losing team during the season itself. This would drive ratings, traffic, and revenue. It'd make the entire business a lot more interesting, and that makes their companies a lot more valuable.
- It's great for the leagues. Leagues like fantasy sports because it helps drive revenue and ratings. Having the equivalent of year-long fantasy sports for every team and every league is like fantasy sports on steroids (okay, poor choice of words). And creating a playing field where every team can actually compete every year only helps.
- It rewards players playing well. One reason we admire professional athletes is because they can do something most people can't. When every player is playing for a new contract, every year, we're going to see them at their peak, giving their all, all of the time. And while that may mean a different list of top players on different teams every year, it still ensures the best players are rewarded and the fans get to see the best level of play possible.
Four reasons this couldn't work:
- The players' unions will hate it. They want their members to have job security, even if it means they're not meeting expectations (although by not having guaranteed contracts, NFL players already lack actual job security). And while we'd still need rules around bargaining, health insurance, injury policies and so on, this approach does diminish the influence of the players' unions.
- The rich baseball teams won't like it. For this to work, you'd have to have a salary cap or otherwise, the underlying point of the plan (give every team a real chance every year) doesn't work. So the Yankees, Dodgers, Cubs, Red Sox, Angels and other teams used to throwing money around would have to play by a new, tougher set of rules.
- Teams in less desirable locations may suffer. If players can play wherever they want, they may choose to avoid smaller markets or cold weather or high tax markets. However, a great franchise (look at the Packers or the Penguins or the Spurs) can still attract talent, and great players now get endorsements wherever they play (playing in Indianapolis didn't hurt Peyton Manning's earning ability).
- Merchandisers may not like it. On one hand, if you love Steph Curry, maybe you'd get a new jersey every time he changes teams. But maybe you'd decide it's pointless if players are so transient, so you just buy less stuff.
There's a lesson here
Whether or not this idea can ever happen, is there a lesson here that applies to all of us? There is.
The four major professional sports leagues today are all successful, lucrative businesses. But that doesn't mean it'll always be that way.
Boxing didn't innovate and is now a fringe sport. MMA is incredibly innovative and that just turned into a $4 billion payday for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
In every sector and every business, the notion of "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" is nothing more than a surefire recipe for failure.
Maybe turning every athlete into a free agent every year isn't the right answer. But if we fail to think about how we can do things radically different and radically better, we end up not doing much at all.
And there's a word for businesses like that: extinct.