Good take from last year on the differences between a successful NFL franchise, and, well, the opposite.
The KC Chiefs are somewhere in the middle of the spectrum in organizational health between the Patriots and the hapless Browns, skewing a bit higher overall lately. If a casual fan can expect the Pats to go 12-4 in any given season just on the organization’s reputation alone, knowing nothing else about the player or staff roster, and can expect the Browns to go 4-12 for the same reason, then they can expect the Chiefs to post a solid 9-7 finish. Not stellar, but enough to sneak into a wildcard playoff spot half the time.
And all three teams represent well the biggest liability in 31 of the 32 NFL franchises: the ownership.
All teams, with the lone exception of the Packers, resemble a medieval (or Saudi, but I repeat myself) feudal fiefdom, where the lordship is passed down from father to son. This isn’t just an informal custom — NFL bylaws explicitly state that only one person may have majority ownership of a franchise. Perhaps this is so that no decedent owner may commit Charlemagne’s error of dividing up his empire among his many children, and must pick one; Buckingham Palace goes solely to the eldest heir of the Queen for the same reason. This inevitably leads to owners leaving their franchise to one of their male children, rather than going through any sort of selection process to find the person actually most qualified to lead the team.
The success or failure of any corporate franchise begins and ends with the owner. Any freshman-level business class uses the restaurant owner as the prime example — the tireless, obsessive owner vs. the lazy dilettante who leaves everything for his manager to figure out. The textbooks make clear which one will succeed. So it is with the NFL. Yes, the head coach handles the depth chart and the play calls; the GM handles staffing, including drafts; but it is the owner and only the owner who holds the ultimate veto of being able to hire and fire for both these positions. And I can’t think of a single owner who does not at least occasionally interfere in the decisions of these underlings, for good or for ill. Too often for the latter.
For restaurants or other normal companies, the free market generally handles it from there. Incompetent owners soon find themselves in bankruptcy court, no matter how cushy their starting position was if they inherited it. My own dad can testify here, after he tried leaving the business to my brother.
But the NFL isn’t a free market, because if it were, the Cleveland Browns would have filed Chapter 7 several years ago. The league is in fact arguably a quasi-governmental agency on par with Amtrak, taking user fees/purchases and taxpayer dollars (better believe, a LOT of taxpayer dollars) to distribute total income among its 32 “subagencies” or fiefdoms, more or less equally. Thus, reinforcing how a franchise ownership really is like a landed, hereditary nobility title. The feudal nobility system is one of government, not commerce, right?
And so, Cleveland will be afflicted with a losing NFL franchise unless and until Jimmy Haslam — or his son — chooses to actually learn how to lead a football franchise. There is no option, no veto. It’s not like the Browns could just fold shop, to make room for another club. It’s not like a new club could even be allowed to start up in or near Cleveland. His Lordship Haslam will ensure the Mistake on the Lake cannot have a competitive NFL franchise anytime soon, not unless His Excellency finds it in himself to mend his ways.
Which is possible! Robert Kraft didn’t really figure out the job until the mid-late ’90s. And now, he is by far the biggest reason why the Pats are now the league’s premier dynasty, comparable to what Duke and Kansas are for college basketball. Belichick and Brady may have had unusually long and stable careers, but above them lurk the front office and ultimately Kraft himself. It is simply impossible for a restaurant to succeed for years without excellent ownership, no matter how lauded the chef may be. He also represents the biggest future problem for his team — what happens when he retires or dies.
Clark Hunt, who inherited his title from AFC legend Lamar, was similarly clueless for many years after ascending to the Peerage upon his father’s death. He had no real reason to go out of his way to learn how to football — like a unionized Chicago schoolteacher, he is immune to the threat of being fired for incompetence. It took the shock and trauma of the Chiefs’ 2012 disaster to finally make him learn the ropes of his job, stop relying on castoffs from other organizations, and make his vassalage into one of the more solid contenders in the AFC. Pity the opponent who doesn’t prepare before heading into Arrowhead Stadium these days, unlike the days where they garnered the same reputation as your mom for “streakbreaker.”
But there is no justice, no method to remove an incompetent owner from office, assuming they aren’t stupid enough to leave racist messages to their mistresses. There is no room to allow a competitor to flourish in the market. (Not even in New York City. A Giants fan would rather wither and die than switch to rooting for the Jets, and vice versa, no matter how bad things get.) The owner of the NFL franchise in Cleveland or Boston or Kansas City or any town other than Green Bay, WI, will be the owner of the only franchise in town until he dies or sells, and that is that.
Ultimately, the NFL just illustrates why democracies, for all their issues, perform better than monarchies or dictatorships. Kraft’s Patriots are an exception — most other NFL franchises cannot meet the decade-to-decade quality of the Packers, the one organization grandfathered into allowing a publicly traded corporate governance with the residents of Green Bay as the shareholders, with a president instead of an owner.
Sure, at any given moment, there will be some king or dictator or oligarchy more dynamic than the unwieldy democracies of the West. But on average, they fare far worse — for every Robert Kraft, there are a dozen Jimmy Haslams running things with your local tinpot dictatorships. If you get to choose to pick which team to be a fan of for the next 50 years, and unlike me were unswerved by childhood loyalties and only had an eye for winning percentages, you would be an idiot to pick any team other than the Packers.
I would not be surprised to find the Patriots or Broncos as cellar dwellers a generation from now. I would be very surprised to find the Packers as the same.