Why Do MLB Players Have More Power Than NFL Players?

In a recent Freakonomics Quorum, Stephen Dubner asks the following question:

It’s a widely held perception that the professional athletes who constitute Major League Baseball and the National Football League have different levels of power — i.e., players have more juice in M.L.B., while it’s a team’s ownership that has more power in the N.F.L., often at the expense of individual players. Is this true?

I think it’s pretty clear that NFL players have less power than MLB players. The NFL has a hard cap, non-guaranteed contracts, and I think the union has sometimes pushed keeping itself alive rather than focusing on player rights. Salaries are not just lower in the NFL, jobs are much less certain, careers are shorter, and the long-term health consequences are worse. So, I agree with the perception.

Why is this the case? Here are some reasons that I have come up with.

  1. The nature of the game makes players more important in baseball, and coaching systems more important in the NFL. NFL players are cogs that are easily replaceable in a way that they are not in baseball.
  2. NFL players are invisible in their uniforms compared to baseball players. Therefore, they are at a disadvantage in garnering public support during work stoppages. People don’t feel sympathy for jersey numbers, and fans are happy to root for replacements. There is financial reason that agents started telling their clients to take off their helmets after big plays and owners voted to put an end to it.
  3. NFL players have had some poor representation and bad luck while a MLB has had good representation and good luck. Marvin Miller was a catalyst, and the owners bungled their handling of Hunter, Messersimth, and McNally. This gave the players a mountain of bargaining power when their interpretation of the reserve clause was denied by arbitrators. Had they handled these conflicts better, or if arbitrators had sided with the owners, the owners might not be in this mess.
  4. A reason put forth by Bill James in one of his Abtracts (I don’t recall which one or if I’m remembering his argument exactly) is that the minor leagues in baseball offer a big protection to major leaguers. Virtually every individual in the world who is capable of playing baseball at a near-major-league level is in the minor leagues. These players are waiting for their big break and plan to one day join the union; therefore, they do not cross the picket line. If the players strike, the replacement players the owners might use are far more inferior than replacements in the NFL who have regular everyday jobs and would jump at the chance to get a shot. This reason is strengthened if #1 holds.

I think that #3 and #4 (exacerbated by #1) explain much of the difference. Other thoughts?

Addendum: Thanks to Cyril Morong for the pointer.

9 Responses “Why Do MLB Players Have More Power Than NFL Players?”

  1. Aaron says:

    Raw numbers seems to matter as well. There are a lot more football players on a roster and in the league (figure 32×60 vs. 30×25). It is more difficult to organize and manage the organization of football players. The solidarity of the baseball union is in part about maintaining not only the picket line, but the decision to test free agency, and of the isolation of players who have challenged the union. That’s a lot harder to enforce when you are trying to keep track of more than 2x the members.

  2. Phil says:

    The Bill James argument was in the 1988 Abstract, page 17, in an article called “Revolution”.

  3. Marc Schneider says:

    I think another factor is that the NFL is more capable of absorbing a strike than MLB because it’s the more popular sport. As you pointed out, people are willing to watch replacement players in football when they never would in baseball. Plus, I think the Marvin Miller and owner incompetence factors are much more important. I really wonder whether the baseball players would have gotten free agency when they did if not for the arbitrator decisions re McNally and Messersmith. Gene Upshaw simply isn’t in the same league. And the length of career factor is also important. If a football players loses a year, it’s much more detrimental to his career than to a baseball player, who typically plays longer.

  4. Jon Keeperman says:

    A few questions: How does the preponderance of NFL signing bonuses play into these comparisons? I suspect NFL players still earn way below Major Leaguers even with those bonuses factored in, but don’t signing bonuses mitigate some of the discrepancies between the two leagues, particularly when we talk about guaranteed money? And also, how do the leagues’ pension payouts compare?

  5. pawnking says:

    The much longer playing career of the MLB-er plays a huge role. Even the best NFL players knows they have a very short shelf life. By the time the average non-QB is 30 or so, he’s on borrowed time. Therefore he knows holding out a year could hurt his income in a dramatic way.

    In baseball, the best players know they have peak earning years of 10 years, 15 years, or more. Therefore losing 1 year of revenue is much less damaging to them financially.

    It would be a worthy study to examine the effect of a one year strike on the total revenue of an NFL player vs. a baseball player to quantify my illustration above.

  6. kehrsam says:

    I think the fact that baseball is essentially played out in a batter-pitcher confrontation makes it much more personal to the average fan than the NFL’s 22-man scrum. We can check this by postulating that quarterbacks and wide receivers (and a very few cornerbacks) will be treated better in the salary structure than equally-valuable linemen and linebackers, simply because they are the guys that get to go one on one and get more exposure. I don’t have the data, but i would be very surprised if this were not true.

  7. DanC says:

    Baseball is less of a team sport with the marginal benefit of a star player in baseball having more impact.

    The owners in football don’t have to deal with a Yankees type owner i.e an owner willing to break the bank to produce a winner.

    Related to that, the marginal return for investing in a player is lower in football. Revenue sharing and salary caps in football makes heavy investing in football players less attractive and riskier. If I invest a lot in a football player, and I make a bad investment, football teams are trapped with the player. A team like the Yankees just forget about it and move on.

  8. David Pinto says:

    I think you nailed it. If you have a big offensive line, any competent skill players can succeed in the NFL. I learned this early, when Craig Morton sucked for the Giants, then took the Broncos to the Super Bowl. Give a QB enough time, and he’ll complete a pass.

    But if you first baseman doesn’t hit, it’s all his fault.

  9. pawnking made an important point regarding the length of the players’ playing careers. Further to that point is the higher frequency of injuries in the NFL. When you factor in a short playing career, along with the chance of injury, players simply cannot afford to sit out a couple of years to strike in order to gain more 3-5 years down the line. The NFL knows this.

    Further, the NFL has done an unbelievable job of marketing the NFL. MLB has done an average job of marketing its team and its players, and a poor job of marketing MLB.