Ravens first-round draft pick Ronnie Stanley, an offensive lineman from Notre Dame, talks with reporters at the team’s Owings Mills facilities. (Kevin Richardson)
It's not exactly the Super Bowl, but for NFL fans of all 32 teams, for the past three days, hope has sprung eternal. That's the beauty of the NFL Draft, which was once a total afterthought but is now a huge television draw that just a few years ago pulled in more than 45 million viewers over the course of three days.
Not bad for something that, a few generations ago, was largely done by a group of team owners and staff in a hotel conference room and away from the bright lights of television.
Why do NFL fans love the draft so much? After all, it's largely listening to talking heads prattle on about 40-yard-dash times, team needs and best players available. But it also provides some dramatic twists and turns — see the case of Ole Miss offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil, who just a few weeks ago was thought to be the first overall pick but dropped to No. 13 after a strange video emerged on his Twitter account showing him smoking through a bong and a gas mask. Seriously, you can't make this up. In some ways, it's the ultimate reality show.
But the biggest reason it's such as draw is the aforementioned hope it provides to even the worst teams and their fanbases. The NFL Draft is structured so that, for the most part, the worst teams from a year ago get the highest picks, giving them an opportunity to become better.
To put this in a political perspective, the NFL Draft is an inherently socialist way of doing things. "To each according to his need," could just as well apply to the NFL Draft structure as Marxism.
However, as we saw this year with blockbuster trades allowing the Los Angeles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles to obtain the top two picks from teams with inferior records for a bounty of later and future picks —referred to by some as draft capital — nothing is without a price.
The NFL as a whole is an interesting, and successful, commingling of socialist and capitalist concepts.
Not many people are going to look at a sports league that reportedly generated more than $7 billion in annual revenue a few years ago and think of it as socialist, but because of revenue-sharing rules related to TV broadcast rights, merchandise sales and even some ticket sales, it's a little easier to make that argument. Even the NFL's salary cap, which is intended to maintain a competitive balance, runs counter to free-market ideals. (Meanwhile, a look at European football, commonly referred to as soccer in these parts, has a very free market that allows the big-market teams to spend freely on the best players and pay for it through lucrative sponsorship deals they don't have to share.)
That's not to say NFL teams share all of the money. Teams keep a portion of the gate receipts (notably money made through club level and luxury suites, which is why owners keep demanding new stadiums with more and more of those), local media deals such as radio broadcasting rights, and other naming rights sponsorships (which is why every stadium seems to have half a dozen portions of it named after some corporate entity).
Winning and competition are hallmarks shared by capitalism and any sports team. A successful season makes a sports franchise worth more — fans are willing to pay more to go to games, media outlets offer more to carry broadcasts for fans who can't get a ticket in pursuit of ratings, and corporate sponsors want to be seen by those additional fans in attendance. Happy fans also tend to be more willing to spend money on concessions — the revenues of which are gobbled up by the individual teams, by the way.
There are dozens of other examples of the capitalist and socialist practices of the NFL, and if you look closely at any American corporate structure, you'll probably see similar concepts at play (minus a televised draft of new employees).
The NFL is the most successful sports league in the world, financially, and there are no signs of that changing any time soon. Professional sports and real life aren't always reflective of each other, but perhaps there's something to be learned from their illustration that mortal enemies, capitalism and socialism, can coexist together and lead to roaring success.