The Ten Greatest NFL Defenses in the Super Bowl Era

I am a sucker for lists and rankings, despite many of them not being worth much. The more insightful top-whatever lists are ones where not just the ranking is offered, but the reasoning and advocacy behind the ranking. What were the criteria? How much were subjective factors weighed against objective ones? And so on.

I’ve seen more than a few lists ranking the greatest NFL defenses.  Most leave much to be desired and their formations have their fair share of holes.  So, it got me thinking about developing a more righteous top-10 defenses list.  One where the criteria are sound and (somewhat) consistently adhered to.

The ranking applies three key criteria: statistics, qualitative impact, and what contemporary players, coaches, and teams thought about the defense. Added bonuses for longevity/run and the cultural impact of the defense.  Only teams from the Super Bowl era, from 1966 on, are considered (apologies to the Halas-era Monsters of the Midway).

So here we go. The best ranking of the ten greatest defenses in NFL history, in ascending order.

Numbers 10 through 8 (in no particular order) – Miami Dolphins No Name Defense (1972), Seattle Seahawks Legion of Boom (2013), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2002)

You can’t leave off this top-10 list the defense that led the only undefeated team in the Super Bowl era.  The 1972 Dolphins defense had a year for the ages despite a lack of star power (Coach Tom Landry came up with the ‘No Name’ moniker).  Nick Buoniconti is the best known of the No Namers, earning a bust in Canton.  But the most underrated was safety Dick Anderson.

The 2002 Buccaneers’ defense might be the toughest against the pass since 2000.  Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, and John Lynch rightly served as the famous triumvirate.  But Ronde Barber, Shelton Quarles, and Simeon Rice were the unsung heroes.

The 2013 Seattle Seahawks’ Legion of Boom was as hard-hitting and intimidating of a defense the NFL has had to offer post-2000.  Watching the Legion of Boom that year made you feel like you were transported to an earlier NFL era, one when defense ruled the roost.

#7 – New York Giants Big Blue Wrecking Crew – 1986-1990

The top defenses of the Super Bowl era must include the one with the greatest defensive player in the history of the NFL.

Lawrence Taylor was the catalyst for the G-men in the championship year of 1986, logging over 20 sacks.  There was nothing that could stop him, in 1986, 1990, or throughout his stellar career (except, perhaps, for himself).

Not that LT needed any help, but he certainly enjoyed it with Leonard Marshall’s sacks and Carl Banks’ tackles (over 110 in 1986).  Who can forget Jim Burt as the prototypical immovable nose tackle in the middle?  This defense was so good, people often forget about another Hall of Fame linebacker alongside LT, Harry Carson.

What I love most about the Big Blue Wrecking Crew was they dominated in an era stacked with great offensive talent.  In their 1986 playoff run to Super Bowl victory, they beat Joe Montana (the 49ers scored 3 points and Montana was knocked out of the game by Jim Burt), a stacked 12-4 Washington team (who the Giants shut out), and John Elway.  Their 1990 Super Bowl run saw the defense vanquish Montana and the 49ers again along with Jim Kelly in the famous ‘wide-right’ Super Bowl.

#6 – Dallas Cowboys Doomsday Defense I and II – 1966-1982

The mid-1960s to the early 1980s spans an eternity, as measured in football time.  Yet the Dallas Cowboys over that period fielded exemplary defenses that spanned multiple player generations.  And there were two versions of what came to be known as the Doomsday Defense.

Doomsday I was built off the defensive line, with Larry Cole, Jethro Pugh, and the great Bob Lilly up front.  Leroy Jordan and Chuck Howley anchored the linebacker corps, and they were backed up by a trio of Hall of Famers in the secondary by the names of Mel Renfro, Herb Adderley, and Cliff Harris.

In the mid-1970s, with age catching up to the Doomsday I players, the Cowboys miraculously retooled on the fly to create a Doomsday II lineup that might have surpassed the first.  The duo of Harvey Martin and Randy ‘Manster’ White may be the best pair of defensive linemen in the history of the NFL. Throw in Ed ‘Too Tall’ Jones and that front line would scare any offense.

There is an interesting piece of trivia that illustrates how great this defense was over a long period of time.  The Doomsday Defenses sport three players who were named Super Bowl MVPs: Chuck Howley, Harvey Martin, and Randy White.

Many people despise the Cowboys—especially fans of opposing NFC East teams. But no matter your team affiliation, you must hand it to Coach Landry and the organization for their ability to consistently field one of the most dominant defenses in the league over that period.  The Doomsday Defense is the Cal Ripken of NFL defenses.  And it was the foundation of a storied franchise’s Super Bowl exploits.

The only knock on the Doomsday Defense is a 2-3 team record in five Super Bowl appearances during its reign.

#5 – Minnesota Vikings – 1968-1978

Consider a recipe that would terrify opposing offenses.  First, build a defensive line consisting of hall of famers Carl Eller and Alan Page along with perennial pro bowlers Jim Marshall and Gary Larsen (the only defensive line in NFL history that sent all four players to the pro bowl the same year).  Second, nickname the defensive line the Purple People Eaters.  Last, have the defensive unit adopt the motto ‘let’s meet at the quarterback.’

That powerful recipe delivered pain to offenses and four trips to the Super Bowl for the Vikings in the 1970s.  Although the Vikings were winless in their four trips to the big game, no one doubted what got them there: defense.  And the strength of the defense went deeper than the great line.  Paul Krause established his Hall of Fame credentials roaming the secondary through the late 1960s and 1970s.

In 1969, the Vikings defense yielded a meager 3.4 yards per snap. In 1975, the Vikings became the first team to lead the league in total defense, pass defense, and rush defense (that feat was accomplished again by another team coming up in our ranking).

The Vikings defense of that era earns praise from two guys who played against it and have busts in Canton, Ohio:  Johnny Unitas and Bart Starr.  Both claimed the Purple People Eaters were the best pass rushers they ever faced.  Enough said.

#4 – Baltimore Ravens – 2000

Ray Lewis is a polarizing personality to many, but there is no questioning his dominance, passion, commitment on the field, and what he meant to the Ravens in 2000.  It is rare to see an entire team take on the persona of its captain, especially one as intense as Lewis.  But the Ravens did just that over the course of Ray Lewis’ career.

His leadership of the defense led to pure statistical dominance in 2000: the defense set the NFL 16-game single-season records for fewest points allowed (165) and fewest rushing yards allowed (970).  But the most impressive statistics are found in the Ravens’ successful Super Bowl run that year: in four playoff games including the big one, the Ravens gave up a measly 23 points, and seven came from a kick return touchdown.  That level of defensive domination in the modern era is rare.

One minor point of consideration preventing the 2000 Ravens defense from moving higher in the rankings: their road to Super Bowl champions pitted them against opposing offensives led by mediocre quarterbacks.  Through the playoffs the Ravens defense went up against, in order: Gus Frerotte, Steve McNair, Rich Gannon (knocked out of the AFC Championship game)/Bobby Hoying (his replacement), and finally Kerry Collins in the Super Bowl.

But the impressive flipside to consider is that the Ravens defense carried the team to Super Bowl glory with Trent Dilfer at quarterback.

#3 Philadelphia Eagles Gang Green – 1991

Those not familiar with the Eagles defense in the early 1990s may see this and think it a mistake.  After all, the Eagles in ’91 went a good-but-not-great 10-6, Randall Cunningham suffered an ACL tear in the first game of the season, the Eagles’ resulting offense was horrible, and the team failed to make the playoffs.  But, my goodness, that defense was epic.

The center of gravity was Reverend Reggie White.  And he had a lot of help with Jerome Brown, Andre Waters, Seth Joyner, Wes Hopkins, and Clyde Simmons.  Joyner earned the Sports Illustrated NFL player-of-the-year award.

The most impressive stat for the 1991 Eagles defense was that six players tallied at least 100 tackles that year.  Less than four yards per snap were yielded by the defense, and completion percentage was an unreal 44%.  Opposing offenses scored four rushing touchdowns against the Eagles defense, for the entire season!

The 91 Eagles defense led the league in rushing yards allowed, passing yards allowed, and total yards allowed.  That’s what total, balanced domination on defense looks like on a stat line.

Eagles fans consider the 1991 unit to be Buddy Ryan’s defense despite his firing as head coach the year prior.  Rich Kotite, who will never be confused with Bill Belichick, enjoyed the dual benefits of Ryan’s personnel and Bud Carson as defensive coordinator (Carson was the architect of another famed defense coming up in our ranking).

Gang Green scores bonus points for going up against stellar offenses in their division six times that year: Dallas, Washington, and New York.  Add the concrete-like turf of old Veterans Stadium and you have the best defense of the 1990s and perhaps the past 35 years.

#2 Chicago Bears 46 Defense – 1985

This unit, which reset the standard for the vaunted Monsters of the Midway, posted the most dominant, impressive, and astounding single-season defense in NFL history.  Season average points-per-game of 12.4.  Allowed 10 points, cumulative, through three playoff wins.

But what I love about this defense was how innovation combined with attitude to produce the exceptional.

Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense disrupted opposing offenses to the point where they became nonfunctioning.  And Ryan developed and slotted players that mirrored the 46’s designed aggression with manic yet focused styles of play.  Mike Singletary’s eyes and barely-contained rage are the best examples.

Culturally this Bears team was iconic, not just because of the Super Bowl Shuffle gimmick, but more importantly because of how this defense captured the nation’s attention as must-see.

Only two issues hold the ‘85 Bears from the top slot.  First, their dominance manifested in only one Super Bowl appearance.  Second, during that dominant 1985 playoff run, they faced Phil Simms on a frigid, frozen, and windy Solider Field and then two guys named Dieter Brock (at home again versus the Rams) and Tony Eason (in the Super Bowl versus the Patriots).

For more on Buddy Ryan’s 46 Defense, listen to episode 46 of The Far Middle.

#1 – Pittsburgh Steelers Steel Curtain 1974-1979 

Steel Curtain: the iconic name says it all.

Love them or hate them, no team has ever done dominant defense better or for longer than the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1970s.  Mean Joe Greene, probably the greatest Steeler ever, was the hall-of-fame anchor.  But when you add alongside and behind him four other hall-of-famers in Jack Lambert, Jack Ham, Mel Blount, and Donnie Shell, you set standards that have no comparison before or after.

The best annual version of the Steel Curtain during this run came in 1976, when they allowed only 9.9 points per game in the regular season.  That team did not make it to the Super Bowl due to both 1,000-yard rushers, Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier, being sidelined from injury against the Raiders in the AFC Championship.

This was the golden era of the NFL.

When the Steelers squared off against the Raiders, the Steel Curtain was lining up against Stabler, Biletnikoff, Casper, and three offensive line hall-of-famers in Otto, Shell, and Upshaw.  Strength against strength. Greatness against greatness.

Which brings up the primary reason why the Steel Curtain of the 1970s tops this list.

This defense won more (four Super Bowls), for longer (1973-1979), and against the stiffest of competition.  Ponder the opposition the Steelers had to vanquish to win four Super Bowls in this era:  Shula’s Dolphins, Madden’s Raiders, Bum’s Oilers, Grant’s Vikings, and Landry’s Cowboys.  That era and those teams could fill Canton on their own.

Nothing beats 1970s pro football, no team was better in the 1970s than the Steelers, and no defense in the Super Bowl era has yet to match the Steel Curtain.

The Unsung Icon of Western Pennsylvania Football Royalty

Western Pennsylvania is steeped in football tradition. The cradle of quarterback legends Joe Namath, George Blanda, John Unitas, Joe Montana, Dan Marino, and Jim Kelly. Beyond marquee QBs, the region I call home could fill Canton with its own dedicated wing of current and future members: Tony Dorsett, Curtis Martin, Mike Ditka, Russ Grimm, Jimbo Covert, Bill Fralic, Aaron Donald, Jack Ham, Sean Lee, Joe Schmidt, and Ty Law to name a few. We’ve enjoyed a pro team with six Lombardi’s and two collegiate teams with multiple national titles.

The stacked legacy and legendary names of western Pennsylvania football make it easy to gloss over one of the most impactful native sons of the sport. In the region’s coaching tree, there sits a giant who enjoys both icon status among the football elite and unsung status across the general fan base. No offense to Cowher and Ditka, but the most accomplished football coach from western PA is a position coach who became the godfather of offensive lineman. He’s the greatest name in the region’s football history that you probably never heard of: Joe Moore.

Coach Moore’s Story

Coach Moore is an exemplar of western Pennsylvania. He was raised during the Depression in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood and married a Rankin girl. He started coaching high school football in upstate New York, moved on to Towanda and Erie in Pennsylvania, and then became the head coach at Upper Saint Clair (USC) high school in suburban Pittsburgh in the early 1970s.

Coach Moore built a successful program at USC and set the stage there for his successor, Jim Render, who became the winningest football coach in Western Pennsylvania Interscholastic Athletic League (WPIAL) history. Moore’s defensive captain during his first year at USC was a kid by the name of Kirk Ferentz, who went on to great things at Iowa, becoming its winningest coach and today stands as the longest-tenured head coach at a single FBS program.

Moore’s legendary collegiate coaching career started at the University of Pittsburgh in 1977, where as part of Jackie Sherrill’s staff he led an epic nine-year run of unprecedented talent development of offensive linemen. The names he nurtured to greatness at Pitt are a generational who’s-who of the O-line: Bill Fralic, Mark May, Russ Grimm, Emil Boures, and Jimbo Covert.

After Pitt, Coach Moore spent two years coaching the offensive line at Temple, and then in 1988 began a nine-year run at Notre Dame. Over those nine years for the Irish he sent all but two of his starting linemen to the NFL. One of the most articulate and passionate ambassadors to the Coach Moore legacy through the years has been Notre Dame two-time All-American Aaron Taylor. Coach Moore’s coaching tree bloomed from his tenure with the Irish: Andy Heck was a player for Moore at Notre Dame who went on to a lengthy NFL career as a player and won a Super Bowl as the O-line coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.

Joe Moore was a direct, to-the-point man. He was an intimidator, but in a good way. There were zero airs and graces about him; he simply oozed western PA. He had the perfect personality and style for instilling greatness and realizing raw potential with rough, unpolished talent. His style was optimally suited to develop boys into men.

One of his most famous sayings captured his philosophy of linemen with, “there is no greater feeling in life than moving a man from Point A to Point B, against his will.” He loved teaching the fundamentals and was a master at manipulating players mentally to motivate and prepare them for competition.

As he would often say, those around him would love him at times, hate him at times, but kill for him all the time. His linemen through the years may have had Jackie Sherrill or Lou Holtz as their head coach, but they all played for Joe Moore.

The Joe Moore Legacy

Sadly, we lost Joe Moore much too early in 2003. Although the man may be gone, his memory lives larger than ever. His memory is evident both publicly and privately.

Coach Moore’s public memory is embodied in the Joe Moore Award (JMA). The JMA is awarded annually to the best collegiate football offensive line unit. The award is presented by the Joe Moore Foundation for Teamwork and recognizes the toughest, most physical offensive line in the country. The JMA is the only major college football award to honor a unit or group, not an individual.

Another visible aspect of Moore’s legacy is the Joe Moore O-Line Camp, held every summer in suburban Pittsburgh. The camp provides high school players the chance to be instructed in the craft by an impressive list of former Joe Moore players, headed by NFL Hall of Famer Russ Grimm. The star-studded coaches who regularly attend the camp are testament to the lasting impact their coach had on them decades ago in college.

However, Coach Moore’s most important legacy is one that escapes public notice: his family. The Moore’s raised three boys in suburban Pittsburgh, and today the extended family has grown to include the coach’s grandchildren. I know the extended family well; they are close friends. I can tell you the best part of the Joe Moore legacy is that his grandchildren are the type of individuals you would want to live next door to, befriend, or have your young kids emulate.

In his chosen profession, Joe Moore achieved greatness. In the endeavor of his family, Joe Moore exceeded greatness. I hope we are all as fortunate.

Learn More About Moore
View a video tribute to Joe Moore here.
Read about the Joe Moore Award here.
Follow the Joe Moore O-Line Camp on Twitter: @JM_OLine_Camp.

Major College Athletics: Financial and Moral Failings

Major college sports enjoy an image of enlightened morality coupled with financial prowess.

Tune in to any major NCAA televised event and you are bombarded with constant messaging of social and political progressivism. Individual schools and programs publicly embrace a spectrum of causes, from the liberal to the outright leftist.

The television advertisers during commercial breaks are a who’s who of the largest, most powerful corporations in the world. March Madness and the FBS rake in billions of dollars annually, from broadcasting revenues to merchandising. Schools join major power conferences not for geographic convenience or to preserve historic rivalries, but instead to secure lucrative payments for the programs.

Yet these false images mask unpleasant realities. Major college sports are financially broken and mired in immorality. The unsustainable truth manifests in four failings.

Failing #1: Major College Athletic Programs Bleed Cash

The accounting does not lie. Less than 10% of Division I NCAA athletic programs make money, defined as sports revenues covering sports expenses. Meaning 90% of Division I athletic programs lose money.

There is a misconception that Division I football and men’s basketball programs rake in big bucks, which are then used to cover or subsidize the other sports at a school. Although football and men’s basketball bring in the most revenue at Division I schools, only 20% of all Division I men’s basketball programs brought in more revenue than the basketball program spent, according to the Wall Street Journal. Football did a bit better, but only 28% of Division I programs brought in more revenue than what they spent.

If one adds up all Divisions I-III programs across the NCAA, total revenues were $10.6 billion while expenses were $18.9 billion, creating a massive deficit. Less than 10% of Division I programs cover their expenses with their revenues. These deficits get plugged by direct and indirect subsidy via government revenue (taxpayer dollars), excessively high tuition, and the hidden costs of college these days in the form of student activity fees and the like.

If you never watch a college game, you pay for college sports via taxes. If you are a student that doesn’t have an athletic bone in your body, you pay for major college sports programs through escalating tuition. Government and academia created a system where all are forced to subsidize these money losing endeavors, whether we desire to or not.

Failing #2: Higher Education Puts Your Dollars in the Fluff Instead of the Substance

College athletics spend massive amounts of money on a host of program line items, but the single largest expenditure line item is coaches’ salaries at $3.7 billion (student-athlete compensation won’t appear on the list, another hypocrisy of academia). That’s not by accident.

Many people are shocked to learn that in 39 of the 50 states the highest-paid state employee is either a university football coach or basketball coach. In most of these 39 states the difference between what the college coach is paid and what the governor is paid exceeds a factor of ten.

Public university football and basketball coaches in these 39 states have compensation levels that grossly exceed the pay packages for the heads of the state medical, law enforcement, and educational organizations. Taxpayers in these 39 states are forced to pay excessive amounts of money for someone who can design a 3–4 defense or who can talk a seventeen-year-old into committing to the state school basketball program instead of those dollars being invested in efforts to provide improved cancer care, to keep the streets safe, or to improve math and reading proficiency in the public school systems.

Failing #3: Moral Hypocrisy Abounds in College Athletics

The NCAA, individual universities, and college sports programs all tout commitments to a host of progressive issues. These commitments are trumpeted everywhere you read, watch, or listen.

Until you compare the actions of universities behind the scenes to the public rhetoric. Major college sports programs display shocking hypocrisy when there is an opportunity to procure money. If major funding for a new facility is in play, universities drop all pretense of moral authority and will chase the almighty dollar.

One could choose from a gaggle of examples to illustrate how major college sports programs drop their high-and-mighty platitudes to grovel for funds. The owner of hundreds of fast-food restaurants that peddle unhealthy food and don’t pay living wages to employees leads the funding to revamp UCLA’s historic Pauley Pavilion. The CEO of a lingerie clothing brand that promotes unrealistic images of women to impressionable young girls has Ohio State’s football complex named after him. And a CEO notorious for his eagerness to slash jobs is one of Florida State’s biggest football boosters.

But the biggest example of hypocrisy is found at the University of Oregon, where the founder of Nike and track team alumnus Phil Knight is paying for a $270 million renovation to its track facility. This is nothing new for Knight or Oregon, as he has gifted over $1 billion to the school over time. He is free to donate his money where he sees fit.

What is hypocritical, however, is Oregon’s willingness to take Knight’s money. Oregon is one of the most liberal/leftist campuses in the nation. Equality, inclusiveness, and climate change activism are pillars of core beliefs on the Eugene campus. So, one would think Oregon would be picky and only accept money from donors epitomizing those pillars.

Not the case when it comes to Knight and Nike. Nike has been criticized for decades for its questionable manufacturing practices and whether they embrace child labor, low pay, and worker abuse. The Nike supply chain of overseas contractors is murky and there is concern oppressed Uighurs in China may be forced laborers in its supply chain. Many of Nike’s shoes and apparel are constructed of evil carbon-based materials.

Behind its politically correct ad campaigns, Nike is as brazenly capitalistic as one can imagine. But when a glistening new track facility, equipped with a barbershop, museum, and murals is in play, the Ducks sweep their morals under the bleachers. Rest assured this will not preclude the university from lecturing the rest of society on how to behave.

Failing #4: College Athletics Abuse the Concept of Human Capital

Funny how academic institutions that created the concept of, and preach to business the importance of, human capital will unabashedly exploit student athletes.

The exploitation of the student athlete is evident across three fronts.

The first is the most obvious: star athletes at major programs bring in millions of dollars of revenue for the school, yet the athletes are paid nothing close to a fair or living wage. Worse, most of these athletes will never make it to the pros and many of them will suffer injuries that can last a lifetime, from the physical to the cognitive. Major college sports are designed as human meatgrinders.

The second front of athlete exploitation is colleges, in concert with pro sports, using anti-competitive collusion to deny athletes opportunities to ply their trade in the free market. How ridiculous is it that in 2021 it is nearly impossible for a gifted athlete to exit high school and enter the NFL draft? Or that we are still duped into lamenting the ‘one and done’ mentality of the college basketball elite when it should be ‘none and done.’ Higher education and the big business of pro sports have imposed a system of indentured servitude on the most gifted of athletes.

The final front of human capital exploitation is misleading athletes and their families with the fiction that they will graduate with a free education in a skill that sets them for life. That is far from the rule today. Instead, the big-time programs know many of their student athletes will never graduate with a degree. Many who do graduate will be armed with a useless piece of parchment stating a major that has little demand in the real world (I suppose the student athlete shares the same fate as many students in this facet of academia’s failing).

A Moral Imperative for Change

Major college sports need an overhaul. Tear down these programs built upon failed business models, fiscal deficits, moral hypocrisy, and human capital exploitation. Build in their places sustainable models that meet the following four criteria:

  • Division I athletic programs only spend what they generate in revenues and donations. Taxpayers and students should not be forced to subsidize sports through excessive taxes and tuition levels.
  • Division I programs should pay star athletes fair compensation for what the athletes bring in as revenue. Dispense with the tired and bogus argument of, “well, the player gets paid with a free education.” That degree, if the athlete actually graduates, may end up not being worth the paper it is written on.
  • If a college sports coach at a public university is paid more than the governor of the school’s state, the president of the university, or the dean of its medical school, society should question if that school is acting in a way that is consistent with its charter as a public institution of higher learning. The university should be required to submit formal justification for the coach’s compensation package, much like a public company must submit a proxy to its owners to defend its executive pay packages.
  • Donations are only accepted if the donor and his/her business clearly comply with the mission statements and core values listed on university websites, speeches, and brochures. If they don’t comply, the school should either decline the donation or relax/modify its mission statement and core values so that a conflict no longer exists.

Until these reasonable, transparent, and rational reforms are adopted, academia, its leadership, and student body should refrain from activism and public discourse. The unwillingness to hold oneself accountable to the standards you lecture society to adopt is blatant hypocrisy that destroys credibility.

If academia wants to talk the talk, we should demand they walk the walk.

Requiem for the Pro Sports Fan

I am a free market and capitalism advocate; the more society has of these two, the better. I was also a dedicated sports fan for many years, starting at childhood. I use the past tense to describe my sports dedication because I lost my passion for pro sports years ago.

What bled my love for pro sports? The quick answers are free agency creating continual player turnover, organizations constantly moving teams from city to city for more lucrative arrangements, and player branding superseding team performance. In short, profit motive and self-interest.

How can I be an advocate of capitalism and the free market and then lament professional sports being driven by money and individualism? This question confounded me every time I was frustrated to hear about a team abandoning its city for a more lucrative zip code. I felt for the betrayed fans of the team, yet I knew a business’ duty is to pursue a profitable path. Same mixed feelings when a star player hopped from one team to another chasing a bigger contract.

Teams and Leagues Break the Social Contract

But then it dawned on me that professional sports are different than other industries and businesses. Pro sports have a social contract with society.

Leagues are granted a near monopoly, the ability to control wages ala the salary cap, public subsidy for venues, and various exemptions from a host of regulations that the rest of us are subject to. In exchange, the leagues are supposed to agree to take a stakeholder long view, with each team in the league developing roots in the cities and regions where they are situated. Moving and short-termism would only be applied in dire situations where the team was facing insolvency. Pro sports under this compact were a more lucrative, sexier version of a public utility. Sort-of private and at the same time sort-of public works.

The social contract between leagues/teams and their traditional cities/regions has transitioned into a new arrangement between pro sports and big money pools.

The money pools are television/media and booming cities looking to lure teams away from their traditional homes. The transition allowed professional sports to retain all the benefits of the original social contract while being released to commit to the highest bidder.

That isn’t capitalism or a free market. Instead, it’s a public-works model that was commandeered into an oligopoly colluding to maximize its economic rent at the expense of the towns, regions, and fans who paid up front and held up their end of the deal for years. Traditional fans, legacy cities, and taxpayers are getting hosed. The market does not function as a free one but instead functions as a controlled one through the collusion of the few.

Athlete Morphs to Brand

While leagues and teams learned how to break the social contract with legacy cities while keeping its benefits and pursuing more lucrative opportunities, the professional athlete was not sitting idle.

Today’s professional athlete has become a discrete media brand. Performance in the game is now just a means to the end of the star’s ‘platform.’ Touchdowns, three-pointers, home runs, and goals only matter today if they convert into internet clicks and social media followers.

This startling transformation was completed within three generations. Baby boomers grew up idolizing sports when teams and star players didn’t move. Clemente is always a Pirate, Rocket Richard is a perpetual Canadien, Russell is the eternal Celtic, and Jim Brown is forever a Brown. The stability of great players built the brand, image, and culture of players, teams, divisions, and leagues.

Then came the advent of wider-spread free agency and the big money of television in the 1980s and 1990s.

Beloved teams moved from city to city to chase public subsidy and generous handouts. Free agency went from exception to rule, and the star spending an entire career with one team started to become something special. Fan trepidation loomed when a big-name player had a contract expiring and coming up for extension. The stars increasingly engaged in musical chairs: Gretzky left Edmonton for L.A., Montana went from 49er to Chief, Shaq switched the Magic for the Lakers, and so on.

Jerry Seinfeld nailed this era when he quipped that sports fans started rooting for laundry, because players and teams were moving from city to city. Should Nolan Ryan’s plaque show him wearing a Mets, Angels, Astros, or Rangers cap? The 1980s and 1990s saw player and team movement starting to shift fan loyalty from team to player.

There was once a reliable, sequential formula for pro athlete success: the expression of individual talent via the highlight reel and stat sheet, then the championship title, followed by endorsements and bigger contracts. The formula worked for decades, with the exemplar being the career trajectory of Michael Jordan.

That formula no longer applies.

Today’s stars are focused on how many followers they have on social media, not whether their team wins a title. Players and advisors manage playing time and career decisions to maximize brand beyond the field-court-rink. If a player creates tension between individual brand and team when posting something on social media that will attract followers of the player but also draw team critics, today’s athlete looks after #1 and worries about the team later.

The concept of continuity of a team has been undone, so that the modern fan doesn’t associate with teams. Fans now follow an individual athlete, and more so the player’s social media posts than his stats (gambling and fantasy leagues aside). Why be concerned with what laundry the player is wearing this season? The laundry’s logo will surely change before you know it. This is what athletes pursuing their self-interests looks like in 2021.

What’s a Fan to Do?

Feeling unease with the current state of pro sports does not conflict with advocating for free enterprise and capitalism. With the social contract between pro sports and their traditional homes breached, fans are free to pursue enjoyment guilt-free.

Fans have two paths to choose from. One path is to get with the times: stop rooting for team laundry, download the popular social media apps to follow favorite brands (what we used to call players), and replace televised games with internet clips of player highlights, fashion, and skits. The other path is to stop following current sports and instead revisit prior teams, games, and players immortalized in the YouTube time vault. Outside of the Super Bowl or Final Four, sign me up for the latter.

Dead Men Walking: Big Time Collegiate and Professional Sports

The anno terribile that is 2020 will claim as victims many traditions, institutions, individuals, and careers. Perhaps one such casualty is major college and professional sports. Although cracks in credibility and business models were propagating for years, 2020 dealt a death blow to big-time sports as we knew them. It was not a single death blow but a crushing, dual pincer movement of self-inflicted stumbles and exogenous shocks (pandemic, economic, etc.) that delivered the fait accompli.

Major college and professional sports have entered terminal decline. Their recovery to healthier, more prosperous times is not in the cards. Amusingly, everyone senses this except those closest to the industry. Not only will life go on, it might improve without big time sports. Despite being a life-long sports fan, I feel fine about such a prognosis. You should, too.

I’m not talking about youth sports, high school athletics, or most run-of-the-mill collegiate sports. Instead, I’m focusing on major college football and basketball and professional sports. The 100,000-seat, sold-out stadium on autumn Saturdays and the subsidized palaces sporting $300 ticket prices that are modern day arenas and stadiums for pro sports are increasingly looking like memories of the past.

Self-Inflicted Crisis in Credibility

Big-time sports did itself no favors by self-inflicting crises in credibility.

The NBA trumpets various forms of social justice and lecturing to its domestic audience yet obediently looks the other way when it comes to an oppressive and anti-human rights China, who coincidentally offers promise of future revenue and market growth.

Tone-deaf cohorts in network TV and the NFL show us millionaire kneel-ins during the national anthem on Thanksgiving games while scoreboards play live feeds of men and women of our armed forces standing for the anthem in Afghanistan.

The NHL trumpets climate change posing but bloats individual player carbon footprints by instituting energy inefficient bubbles to play games through the pandemic.

MLB loves to lecture us directly and indirectly on mask wearing and social distancing but the moment its veneer is peeled away you see a grinning, star player who just tested positive for Covid standing next to, sans-mask, an at-risk cancer survivor manager in a World Series celebration.

And the NCAA is all about equity and inclusiveness; until it comes time to pay major sports program players a fair share of the millions of dollars they earn for the university.

Self-Inflicted Crisis in Business Model

Big-time sports’ situation worsens by applying outdated and broken business models.
With 2020 bringing layoffs and reduced salaries across sports media and team front offices, the NBA found two of its teams paying Gordon Hayward and Jayson Tatum (who?) $120 million and $195 million, respectively.

MLB’s financial model consciously creates two team classes of big market haves and small market have-nots, where incentives are structured to reward risk-taking/big spending in large markets and miserly/perennial non-competitiveness in small markets (I’m a long-suffering fan of the poor-playing but financially-profitable Pirates that MLB incentivizes).

NCAA basketball and, increasingly, football motivates the one-and-done path to the pros, whereby collegiate teams no longer develop an identity or continuity to lineups.
The in-person live experience for all pro sports has become a time-consuming, expensive, and boring slog; games take forever, and endless interruptions and timeouts kill game flow.

Exogenous-Driven Crisis in Credibility

Perhaps big-time sports could’ve survived these unforced errors in credibility and business model. But when the pandemic and its associated economic upheaval arrived in 2020, the industry’s credibility and business model suffered mortal blows. The sports world will never be the same.

A shock to the system via Covid shattered the thin veneer of credibility the sports world projected.

Massive stadiums sat empty, with ridiculous cut-outs of people in the stands. Tune in to a lifeless game in an empty stadium and you hear fake cheering and crowd noise, as if the networks and leagues think we are that gullible. Teams shield coaches and players from reporters under auspices of health risk, yet everyone recognizes that pretense is nothing but a convenient excuse to further insulate coddled elite athletes from the annoyance of everyday people.

Worst of all, sports have ceased to be relevant in a world where everyone is struggling and is concerned about personal health, finances, job, and loved ones. We’ve realized there are way more important things in life. For many fans—from the casual to the chest painters—sports have been replaced with other pursuits and they’ve moved on to never return.

Exogenous-Driven Crisis in Business Model

Covid wrecked sports’ already buckling business models.

Leagues heavily dependent on gate revenue, like the NHL, suffered the most. A return to sold-out arenas and stadiums will be far off into the future, if ever.

Does anyone think pro leagues will return to the lucrative corporate luxury box and advertising model soon? Why would a corporation, under its own financial stress brought on by 2020 calamities, spend precious budget dollars on luxury boxes (and associated ad spend) that risk the health of its employees, customers, and partners?

As local and state governments lose tax revenue from shuttering economies, expect little support for future public subsidy of pro sports. Government needs to get kids back in school and economies functioning again; retention of a sports team has fallen down the depth chart of priorities.

Speaking of kids, the future audience and customers for major sports have evaporated in two truncated seasons of hiatus and altered play. The typical teen could not care less about big time sports today and won’t likely start to care about it if, and when, normalcy returns.

Moving On

With all these headwinds facing major college and pro sports, you would think the owners, players, and unions would band together to navigate the treacherous waters. Instead, expect hostility and in-fighting, as everyone wants to pretend times have not changed and that risk and concessions should only be shouldered and made by someone else. A word to the wise professional athlete: save your money, because a change is coming.

To all the old school sports fans out there, do not despair. Spend more time hanging with family, exploring a new topic, or learning a new skill. And to scratch that sports itch: log onto YouTube and watch a complete World Series from the 1970s. That decade delivered a golden era of baseball, with epic matchups and legendary teams, including The Big Red Machine, Swingin’ A’s, Bronx Bombers, BoSox, Orioles, Dodgers, and Lumber Company. Ten years of fast-moving games, sound fundamentals, great sportscasters, hall of fame players, and dedicated fans. That’s how baseball was meant to be enjoyed.