Saturday, April 26, 2008

The Sports Page: The wacky economics of the NFL draft

For football fans, the annual NFL draft is today.

The NFL draft is how America's professional football league integrates the best players from the college ranks into the 32-team league. The pro team with the worst record from the year before (this year that is the 1 win and 15 loss Miami Dolphins) gets to pick first, meaning they can pick any college player who strikes their fancy. The second worst team picks next and so on, all the way to the Super Bowl-winning New York Giants, who pick last.

In other words, the draft is meant as a way of building competitive balance within the league, as the poorer teams get to pick the better players.

In practice, however, things no longer really work out that way. Why? Because of the wacky economics of the draft and of the NFL as a whole. The early draft picks have turned into financial burdens more than a way to get better as a franchise. Despite the high rate that draft picks often 'flop' -- a flop is a player who is picked high in the draft but whose career never lives up to such expectation -- early picks receive incredible bonuses and guaranteed money. Therefore the poor teams' draft picks combine high cost and incredible risk. 1. Early draft picks are expensive. 2. Choosing among the players is speculative. In the end, many of the expensive high draft picks that teams make, even many of the players who turn into serviceable contributors, turn out to be bottom line-killing failures that help keep the bad teams bad.

This year, the Miami Dolphins, with the first pick, have decided to pick an offensive tackle from the University of Michigan, Jake Long. Mr. Long has never played an NFL game, but now, with his new rookie contract of $57.5 million over the next five years, which he signed this week, he is the highest paid player at his position in the entire league. Mr. Long might turn out to be a valuable member of the team. But the likelihood that he will actually be the best player at his position in the league and therefore worth the highest salary for his position, is very low. The first pick of the draft, in this sense, is as much a punishment these days as it is a way to improve the team and install competitive balance in the league.

Bottom line: The NFL is a strong entertainment brand, but it has a case of economic backwardness that it must address. Here are two sportswriters making similar cases, here and here. The latter article, by Ross Tucker, a former NFL player, gets into some of the reasons for the wackiness.

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