April 23, 2020 / 10:00 PM / a month ago

Breakingviews - NFL draft is an anti-capitalist oddity to treasure

General overall view of the NFL Shield logo and helmets at the NFL Experience at the Miami Beach Convention Center in Miami, Florida, Jan 27, 2020. Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

NEW YORK (Reuters Breakingviews) - The NFL draft, a three-day bonanza in which U.S. professional football teams sign up rookie players, is as American as apple pie. It is also a total repudiation of the country’s most fiercely held principles about how markets should work. It should be treasured, and copied.

The draft works like this. Each of the 32 teams in the National Football League gets to pick players from the pool of talented young wannabes, in turn, over a number of rounds. But rather than the best player going to the highest bidder, the weakest team selects first – this year, the Cincinnati Bengals. Moreover, initial contracts are fixed at four years, and salaries are capped through a mechanism that limits how much each team can spend.

It’s odd that such a competitive sport should embrace such an anticompetitive ritual. The contrast is even starker because the NFL itself is a huge profit center. Walt Disney, the main owner of broadcaster ESPN, has sold out of ad space for the early selection rounds this year. Meanwhile this shackled market works reasonably well. Sure, the New England Patriots have regularly been in the Super Bowl, but eight different teams have won in the past decade, most recently the Kansas City Chiefs. In Britain, just five have won soccer’s Premier League in 20 years.

The mystery, then, is why the United States remains so wedded to market forces in other areas where it is less than helpful – notably healthcare. Laissez-faire economics in that sector – where providers, insurers and middle-men all fight for profit – have created a system where the country spends 18% of GDP on healthcare, yet lags more frugal countries on measures like infant mortality and life expectancy. The coronavirus pandemic, in which states have ended up bidding against one another for medical essentials, has clearly shown markets aren’t always best.

That might be one of many things that changes after the disease has passed. But when politicians and voters debate whether a healthcare system that protects the poor and rich equally is counter to the capitalist spirit that makes America great, they might want to keep the NFL in mind. If the public can tolerate the idea that the Bengals get first crack at this year’s likely number-one hotshot Joe Burrow, anything is possible.


Reuters Breakingviews is the world's leading source of agenda-setting financial insight. As the Reuters brand for financial commentary, we dissect the big business and economic stories as they break around the world every day. A global team of about 30 correspondents in New York, London, Hong Kong and other major cities provides expert analysis in real time.

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