Imagine that a Visiting Martian has just landed on earth. The first thing he or she does is to read Adam Smith’s magisterial The Wealth of Nations. Then our inter-planetary friend sets about watching all the world’s myriad professional sports. When that’s done you ask our Visiting Martian which sport is most in keeping with the thinking of Adam Smith.
You know what? It’s no contest. The sport that would win hands down is what Americans and Canadians refer to as ‘football’, but which we and the Brits and the Kiwis refer to as ‘gridiron’. And my Lord this is a popular sport in north America. Next week’s culmination of the National Football League season, known as the Super Bowl, will be the most watched TV event of the year and will attract well over 115 million television viewers just in the US. In Canada the same sort of percentage of households will be watching. And there will be outposts of TV watchers in the United Kingdom and elsewhere, including here in Australia.
Even the halftime show, a yearly combination of Hollywood glitz mixed with the name-recognition power of some slightly aging rock star, garners world-wide headlines. This year it will be Katy Perry, with a cameo by Lenny Kravitz. Past performers constitute a who’s who of rock and roll. And they do it for nothing, no money, because the publicity is almost literally worth its weight in gold.
Oh, and if your business is interested in buying a spot for an ad to run during the Super Bowl, those are going for US$4.5 million, for 30 seconds.
But why do I say that NFL football has Adam Smith running through its veins? Simple. It’s called division of labour. No other sport that I know of separates out each individual task and then looks for the athlete who is just that fraction better at it than anyone else. Generalists, no matter how talented and athletic, have no place in the NFL.
First off no one plays both offense and defense. On the sidelines there is a cast of dozens and dozens of players, who overwhelmingly do only one thing and do it well enough to be paid heaps of money. Even the slightest improvement on doing some highly specialised task better than others makes you a valuable commodity.
So there are huge offensive linemen who can bench press houses who protect the quarterback and who block for running backs. And for what it’s worth, the real danger in NFL football, and why they really do need all the pads and helmets, is that you can block the defense which means that everyone is liable to be hit without the ball at any time. Some hits are incredibly spectacular. And over a third of starting quarterbacks, by far the most important position in the game, don’t make it through a 16 game season. They get injured.
Then you have running backs who would make Jonah Lomu look small, and slow. You have wide receivers who quite literally have Olympic speed over 50 or 60 yards. You have defenders who combine immense strength and near Olympic speed. You have people who come onto the field maybe 2 or 3 times a game, to kick a three point field goal or to punt the ball away to the other team if the 10 yards needed to gain a first down have not been achieved in three ‘downs’ or plays.
A few ex-AFL players have gone to the NFL as punters and earn vastly more money there – for kicking the ball a few times a game, maybe 20 seconds of playing time a week. Yet because they can punt the ball farther than home grown Americans, and because they are better at making the punt fall without going into the opposition’s end zone, they make a team ever so slightly more likely to win. And in the NFL you pay for the best at that particular task. It’s worth it to try to get the world’s best punter, or receiver, or linebacker, or anything.
And did I mention the coterie of coaches? There is a head coach and then coaches for the defense, the offense, the line, the quarterback, the receivers, special teams, and the list goes on and on.
I am a native born Canadian who spent 11 wonderful years living in Dunedin, New Zealand. I love competitive sports. And having watched many an All Black test at Dunedin’s ‘House of Pain’, I really do love rugby union. But if I were pushed to choose, under pain of death, I’d opt for NFL, probably because I grew up with gridiron and despite conceding that an NFL game continually stops.
You run a play for 5 or 6 seconds and then everything stops. Two dozen coaches on one side plot against two dozen on the other. No person not bred into the game who lacks world class athleticism has a hope of playing at the professional level, but my God the strategy and second-guessing is compelling and addictive. Think of NFL as a chess game using the world’s best athletes playing unbelievably specific roles and you’ll have the general idea. Virtually no two way play. No continuity. No generalists. Instead you make yourself better than anyone else in some highly specialised role, and then you scoop up big rewards.
It is into this maelstrom that the rugby league star Jarryd Hayne is attempting to shift, from NRL to NFL. He brings with him the skills needed to play a non-stop, defense and offense, game and is hoping to transmogrify those into what is needed to win a spot against people who have played some specialised position since they were 16 years old. It’s going to be a very difficult road. If he makes it Mr Hayne will be rewarded beyond anything seen here in Australian sporting salaries.
Here’s one other reason to think of the NFL through Adam Smith’s eyes. The über-rich team owners have erected self-servingly tight rules on ownership (allowed under a specific exemption to US antitrust laws) that basically require a majority of other owners to approve before one can sell out or buy in. This brings to mind Adam Smith’s claim that ‘People of the same trade seldom meet together, even for merriment and diversion, but the conversation ends in a conspiracy against the public, or in some contrivance to raise prices’.
Still, if you’ve never seen an NFL game before and are looking for a wealth of entertainment, tune into the Super Bowl here in Australia on Monday morning, 2 February. If nothing else the commercials and half-time show will be over-the-top and expensive. But it won’t be short. Count on at least 4 hours, start to finish.
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