When Will the NFL Have as Much Parity as the NBA and MLB?


The NFL has a famous phrase to capture the idea that the league leads the way when it comes to parity and anyone being able to win–“any given Sunday.” Everyone is supposed to go 8-8, and you hear about the worst-to-first stories.

We’ve also seen teams have a hard time winning multiple championships recently. Seattle came within a goal line play of repeating. New England twice lost to the Giants in crazy fashion. The Giants are the only team to win two Super Bowls in the last decade, and they did so after regular seasons with 10 and 9 wins.

By pretty much any other measure, though, the NFL has been far more of an oligarchy than the other professional leagues. Fewer teams advance deep in the playoffs, and the teams that have been good in the past tend to remain good at a higher rate than other professional sports. The rags-to-riches tales have been fewer and far between in the NFL compared to other sports over the last 15 years. The rich have stayed fairly wealthy. The Patriots had the best record in the NFL from 2001-2005. The Lions had the worst. From 2006-2010, the Patriots had the best record; the Lions the worst. From 2011-2015, the Patriots again are #1 (the Lions have climbed to mediocrity more recently, but still no playoff wins).


Let’s get to some numbers. We might see yet another new Super Bowl Champ–of the remaining teams only New England has won one in the last 15 years. Yet, the NFL still lags in number of franchises being in competition for titles.

Here’s a summary of how many teams from each professional league reached the Final Four, whether it be called a Conference Championship or a League Championship Series, over a 5-year, 10-year, and 15-year period. [all information from the various sports-reference sites–footballbasketballbaseball, and hockey].

The NFL, which has 32 teams compared to 30 in each of the other leagues, is last across all time periods. First? MLB, which has had 26 of its 30 franchises now appear among the final four playoff teams over the last 15 years, with Toronto reaching the ALCS this season.

Let’s expand it to the Final Eight teams in the playoffs. The NFL is the only one that has eight divisions, with only four teams, and we see teams get into the postseason in weaker divisions. This year, it was Washington going worst-to-first in the NFC East at 9-7. But that’s just accounting. How about if we look at the number of franchises getting deeper into the postseason (which requires reaching the playoffs in baseball–and now winning the wildcard game, and winning a series in NBA/NHL).

Again, the NFL is last over each period of time. In just the last five years, over 70% of MLB/NBA/NHL franchises have participated in the postseason and been among the final eight teams alive. In the NFL, it’s just over half.

during Game Six of the 2015 NBA Finals at Quicken Loans Arena on June 16, 2015 in Cleveland, Ohio. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of Getty Images License Agreement.

Here’s another way of putting just how imbalanced the NFL compared to the other leagues. Only two franchises that were in existence in 2001 in other leagues have failed to be among the final eight even once. Both of those in the NHL–the New York Islanders (last appearance: 1993 Conference Finals) and the Atlanta Thrashers/Winnipeg Jets, who came into existence in the 1999-2000 season.

Every franchise in MLB has participated in the final eight in the playoffs at least once in the last 15 years. 

Every franchise in the NBA has participated in the final eight in the playoffs at least once in the last 15 years. 

FIVE NFL teams have failed to advance that far even once in the last 15 years: Buffalo (1995), Cincinnati (1990), Cleveland (1994), Detroit (1991) and Miami (2000).

That’s more than double the total amount from all three other professional leagues combined. There are simply more sad sack cases of long-time fan misery in the NFL than in other leagues.


You can point to New England, the best franchise, as driving the inequality. They have one losing season in the last 20 years. But the NBA has the Spurs (one losing season in last 25 years) and MLB has the Yankees (no losing seasons in the last 23 years).

At the opposite end from the Browns and Lions and Bills are the sheer number of franchises that have been consistently among the best for long stretches. To wit:

  • Green Bay Packers: two losing season in last 24 years
  • Pittsburgh Steelers: three losing seasons in last 24 years (none with fewer than 6 wins)
  • Denver Broncos: six losing seasons in the last 40 years (3 in the last 20)
  • Indianapolis Colts: two losing seasons in last 17 years
  • Philadelphia Eagles: three losing season in last 16 years
  • Seattle Seahawks: playoff appearances in 10 of last 13 years
  • Baltimore Ravens: four losing season in last 17 years

Including the New England Patriots with that group, that’s a quarter of the league membership that has had losing seasons–even in a league where a few plays can swing close games and injuries can wreck a team in the short term–in fewer than a quarter of their seasons over a substantial stretch of time.

Let’s compare how predictable it has been to take the best teams from one 5-year period and identify who will be good going forward. For this, I’m going to use correlation coefficient of winning percentage for each franchise, for all the leagues. (If you recall, the closer a correlation coefficient is to zero, it represents little relationship. If it is closer to 1, it means there is a strong relationship.)

Again, the NFL has the highest correlation between past success and future success across all periods. It had a higher correlation than even MLB a decade ago, when MLB had a very real (and strongly perceived) competitiveness problem with some franchises having no chance. Recently, though, as the revenue-sharing models have been tweaked and had time to take effect, there is little relationship between past success and predicting the future.

For fun, I also looked to see if you could have predicted the future 10 years in advance, if you went back in time. In MLB, the NBA, and NHL, there is no correlation between who was good a decade or more ago, and who is good today. There is a +0.33 correlation coefficient for the NFL, indicating some tendency for the good to stay good and the bad to stay bad.

This may come as a shock. The NFL has a harder salary cap compared to say MLB. Careers can be shorter and injuries are a big factor. But the institutional ability (or incompetence of some owners) seems to perpetuate more in the NFL.

It’s fair to wonder if the NFL will ever have as much parity as the other leagues.

[photos via USAT Sports Images, Getty]