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PRO FOOTBALL: FREE AGENCY : Open Market Could Be Beneficial for NFL


Though flawed by instances of club-owner collusion, the free-agent market has been good for baseball, a University of Illinois law professor observed recently.

His research suggests, Stephen Ross said, that since 1976, free agency has furthered competitive balance in both leagues, spreading around some of the better ballplayers and enabling more teams to contend for pennants.

Furthermore, if a free market came to the National Football League, he said, it would have the same effect on pro football--helping the bottom clubs and increasing the quantity of title contenders.

Ross is a Los Angeles-born specialist in antitrust and sports law. A graduate of the University of California and its Boalt Hall law school, he is in his sixth year at Illinois after a tour in the Reagan Administration's Department of Justice. He has also worked on antitrust matters for Congressional committees.

His views on free agency--as expressed in a year of NFL player-owner antagonism--aren't shared by the owners of the league's 28 teams.

Their dispute with their 1,500 players--a fight that has left pro football without a collective bargaining agreement for three years--centers on free agency. And the heart of the problem is whether a free market would promote competitive balance.

The players say yes, the owners no.

The owners' principal stated objection to free agency, indeed, is that it would harm NFL competitive balance.

At stake, the Illinois law school educator said, isn't what's best for the teams but for U.S. sports fans--although they don't seem to realize it.

"Most fans and (antitrust-case) judges tend to dismiss the (NFL's) free agency conflict as a silly fight between rich owners and rich players," Ross said. "But that is a basic misunderstanding of the facts. The issue that should most concern (the courts) and also the fans isn't just who gets the money but what happens to the game."

And with free agency, he said, it's a better game for more teams and more fans.

Question: What evidence supports that point of view?

Ross: The turning point was the Andy Messersmith decision in 1975--the (case) that gave baseball players free agency. Since then, in every way you can measure balance, major league baseball has been more competitively balanced than it was in the years before Messersmith.

Q: What are some of the ways you measure such things?

A: There have been closer pennant races. A larger number of different teams have won championships and division titles. Fewer teams have had losing seasons. There have been fewer pennant blowouts. In the seven years before Messersmith, you had 34 teams in the pennant races. In a comparable seven post-Messersmith years, you had 48.

Q: How many were actually title-winners?

A: In the seven years before Messersmith, 11 teams won all the division titles. Post-Messersmith, in the same number of years, 17 teams won titles. You had eight blowouts in the seasons just before Messersmith--that is, eight teams winning by 10 or more games. Post-Messersmith, you had three.

Q: Were those numbers reflected at the gate?

A: Yes, from 1975 to 1985, attendance rose 57% in major league baseball. The thing that makes for the interest in sports--the thing that makes the excitement in stadiums or on TV--is the close fight, the close game, the close race. In team sports, the way to get more excitement and more fans is with a better balance among the competing teams. And more free agents mean more balance.

Q: Pro football is a game in which draft choices also lead to more balance.

A: The problem with the draft is that it limits the weaker teams to one pick in each round--same as winning teams. The draft doesn't do as much for competitive balance as it could.

Q: But it does help?

A: Some, because the only two ways to improve an NFL team today are by drafting or trading. Trouble is, when 28 franchises share the best college talent, it takes a long time to draft a good team. The trouble with trading is that, normally, you have to give up a good one to get a good one. To get free agents, you only give up money. And you get immediate results. Building with free agents can be much faster than building with the draft.

Q: Faster and more costly.

A: Revenues are shared in the NFL. Each of the 28 teams generates about the same amount of money. In a free market, what matters is who wants to spend that money for players and who doesn't. The irony is that while publicly advocating competitive balance, the NFL actually impedes the efforts of its weaker teams to improve. They are barred from spending for the free agents that could make them more competitive.

Q: Even so, the NFL is proud of its competitive balance, which, it says, is basically due to its rules restricting free-agent mobility.

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