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The NFL is an organization built on the perception of parity. “When you come into a season, every fan thinks that their football team has a chance to win the Super Bowl,” league Commissioner Roger Goodell said in 2011. Jonathan Kraft, president of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, echoed this sentiment during a pregame radio show earlier this season, saying: “The difference between 0-2 and 2-0 can be a couple of plays in individual games. And I’m not surprised because the one thing I’ve learned is if you expect something to happen in this league, it’s likely not going to happen. And you see that lesson repeat itself over and over. It’s what makes it so special and why people love to follow it.”
This is a narrative that built a multi-billion dollar business, one that encourages supporters and inspires graphics that go viral. It keeps fans involved when their teams are struggling and brings them back each year. Even the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-14 in 2014 and 2-3 so far this year) think they have a chance in 2015. Each game is a new set of downs, a shot to continue a winning streak or turn around a flagging franchise. You either win or you lose. The excitement comes because your team has a chance to do both.
But the “Any Given Sunday” idea — that any team has a chance to win any game — is less true than NFL executives want the fans to believe.
Sure, you might see your favorite team go from worst to first over the course of a season, but that’s more a function of luck than anything. Teams play such a small number of games that they might have ended up in the cellar even though they weren’t that bad the year before. Conversely, even if a team stinks, it can luck its way to an 8-8 year.
But beneath that luck, the NFL is much more unequal than Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League. Instead, it’s on par with the NBA, a league that’s dominated by its transcendent talents.
That’s what we found by comparing leagues simultaneously, judging their competitiveness on the same scale. We turned to gambling to do it. While game results and win-loss metrics can be affected by scoring systems and number of games, sportsbook odds are the one unifying metric. In a world with perfect competitive equality, each team would have a 50-50 chance of winning. But as the gaps in talent between the teams grow, games are no longer a coin toss. For example, in Sunday’s contest between Green Bay and St. Louis, the underdog Rams were given roughly a 1 in 5 chance of emerging victorious.
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