The salary cap is now an accepted part of the professional sports landscape in the U.S. except in baseball, which has a luxury tax.
The cap is credited for creating parity and giving all the teams an equal chance to be competitive.
But is the salary cap actually a good idea except for the owners, who use it to control salaries?
As the NFL teams prepare for the start of the league’s new fiscal year, it is a good time to check out a book entitled “Cap In Hand – How Salary Caps are Killing Pro Sports and Why the Free Market Could Save Them” (ECW Press).
The book by Bruce Dowbiggin (a two-time winner of the Gemini Award as Canada’s top broadcaster) with Ryan Gauthier argues that the salary cap has spread the talent and created more mediocre teams piloted by conservative coaches.
It suggests doing away with the salary cap and the draft and let teams compete for talent.
It acknowledges this would lead to bigger markets dominating but says that isn’t necessarily be a bad thing because fans like having great teams.
The authors use European soccer as an example.
“It’s accepted that top clubs like Barcelona, Manchester United and Bayern Munich can use their financial clout to assemble great teams. If fans mind, it hasn’t shown itself in attendance, TV ratings and merchandise sales,” the authors note.
And the teams that don’t do well are relegated to a lesser league.
“People accept that the big dogs have to eat and that everyone else feeds on leftovers,” the authors point out.
They also note that Europeans are puzzled by the American obsession with parity.
“They frequently remark that for a hyper-capitalist country like the United States, the professional sports leagues are deeply socialist,” they note.
The late Cleveland owner Art Modell used to say that the NFL owners were fat-cat Republicans who got in a room and voted socialist.
They also point out that college football and basketball thrive with a few teams dominating the sport because the traditional powers can keep recruiting the top players.
As the late, great Beano Cook once said, you could put the tickets on sale tomorrow for the Michigan-Ohio State game 25 years from now and still sell out, even though none of the players who will suit up for the game have been born yet.
The NFL also boomed in the 1970s when Pittsburgh won four titles and Dallas, Miami and Oakland two each from 1971 to 1980.
The Steelers may have been the best team ever but couldn’t duplicate that today because they couldn’t have afforded to keep nine Hall of Famers for a six-year span under a salary cap system.
New England Patriots fans will argue they have a great team because they’ve won six titles since 2001, but they have succeeded because they have a great quarterback in a passing era and are playing in a watered-down league because of the cap.
Of course, even in a salary cap era some teams will consistently struggle if they are poorly run the way the Browns have since they returned as an expansion team, although they appeared to start to turn the corner last year.
And Jacksonville owner Shad Khan hasn’t been successful as an owner in either system in the NFL and English soccer. In the NFL, his problem has been finding the right football people to run the team. I don’t know enough about soccer to know if his Fulham ownership has been the problem, or if the deck is stacked against him because his team is not one of the big dogs.
Although it would be interesting to see what would happen without a salary cap, it’s not going to happen. The owners want the salary cap to control salaries, and the players are focused on getting a bigger share of the pie, not overthrowing the system.
And the idea that the cap creates parity is so ingrained in the consciousness of the American sports fans that they accepted the status quo of mediocre teams.
The book also has a detailed history of labor negotiations in the various sports, although it may be too detailed for some fans. And it has an obvious mistake when it talks about John Elway’s threat to play baseball to get the Baltimore Colts to trade him.
“Elway went so far as to play baseball in the New York Yankees system before the Colts relented,’’ the authors say.
In reality, he played baseball before he was drafted by general manager Ernie Accorsi because he was the best player. And owner Bob Irsay traded him a week after the draft without telling Accorsi because he didn’t want to meet Elway’s demands for a five-year, $5 million deal. It had nothing to do with the baseball threat.
Elway wasn’t that good a baseball prospect and probably would have caved if Irsay had called his bluff.
Still, the book is thought provoking and provides an antidote to those who thinks salary caps are the only way to run pro sports in America.