The NFL has 15 teams that are .500 and 16 teams — half the league — that are within a tie of .500 in the NFL standings. If that seems high to you, it is. Since 2011, there has only been one instance where there were 15 teams at .500, and there hasn’t been a single instance of that many teams being within a tie of that mark.
With that, of course, comes the lack of undefeated and winless teams – just one of each this year. Something strange is going on in the NFL.
Is NFL Mediocrity a Bad Thing?
It seems like a chore to watch some of these .500 teams, and it’s increasingly difficult to parse them, whether that’s for power rankings or for pre-game predictions. The league will tell me I’m wrong, and maybe I am. Their most recent press release for this week’s slate of games touts “its most competitive start ever” and further brags that “50 games have been within one score in the fourth quarter, the most through Week 4 in NFL history.”
Consistently producing close games sounds like it makes for exciting football, but it can also be frustrating – just ask any Vikings fans who experienced their record-tying 15 one-score contests in 2021.
These .500 teams are a product of some of the randomness that comes with small samples, injury luck, and weird schedules, on top of the unclear development path of young players like Justin Fields or Jalen Hurts. But there’s a strong feeling that many of these teams are simply mediocre. What storylines are we expected to follow if all roads lead to the same place?
Injuries to high-profile positions have impacted things, though it’s not easy to tell if this is more significant than in other years. More to the point, high-level quarterbacks or top-level defenses have generally failed to deliver. For every repeat Patrick Mahomes performance, we see a dud Aaron Rodgers game.
Is an NFL That Lacks Dominant Teams Bad for Business?
There’s a financial reason for the NFL to be concerned. Time and again, fans tell pollsters and focus groups that they want a league with parity. But the economics of leagues with and without competitive balance tells us something different. Fans watch leagues with dominant teams.
It makes sense, too. People want their teams to be consistently competitive, which is more likely in a system with parity. They know that their team is always in it and are willing to watch them in high-stakes situations. But the NFL isn’t just marketing to fans of one team watching one game. They want people to watch as many games as possible.
This isn’t the first time that people have expressed a preference for one thing but have put attention or dollars to something else – whether it’s the desire for healthier food options on a menu or the type of content they want to be served to them, we see evidence all the time of expressed preference beating out stated preference.
Part of the reason this works out for sports leagues has to do with the fact that there are, essentially, two demand equations.
The demand curve for a fan of one team is relatively inelastic when it comes to that team. Their desire to watch that team won’t waver too much from week to week based on how good that team is. The demand is definitely not completely inelastic (like health care, addictive substances, or food) – fans will drop off of a losing team or hop on a winning team – but it is inelastic compared to the other demand curve: their willingness to watch a random team at another time.
Not many people will tune in to see if one .500 team will beat out another .500 team. But they will tune in to see what an undefeated team might do to some other team. The 2007 Patriots were appointment viewing. The prospect of watching a team go up two scores against Mahomes’ Chiefs just to see him mount an impossible comeback is compelling television.
Catering to that more elastic market makes sense, if at all possible. And having fewer mediocre teams and more studs and duds in the NFL is how it can happen.
Data backs this up. Multiple studies suggest that while home team attendance is driven by the likelihood of winning, global viewership is attracted to spectacle. The perception of balance matters, but not the reality. There are extreme cases in both circumstances – the 1950s Yankees saw diminishing attendance over time as they maintained their incredible dominance, just as a league where every contest would be decided by a coin flip would be uninteresting to watch.
But leagues like to have good teams and especially love to have good teams playing against good teams. When there aren’t enough of them, then we get some pretty tepid matchups and, concurrently, tepid viewership.
It isn’t just the weird mathematical accident of having so many .500 teams – it feels like an NFL without any definitiveness. It’s hard to have an underdog story if no team feels truly out of it, and it’s difficult to sell spectacle if no team can capture anyone’s imagination. Instead, there’s the murk of having a lot of teams trudge along without any guarantee that one week’s contest will mean anything by the time they line up for next week’s contest.
Which Teams Could Rescue the NFL From the Doldrums of Mediocrity?
There are a few teams that have a road to relevancy that could save the NFL from the doldrums of mediocrity. The Buccaneers have returned some of their receiving corps and still could see another player – Chris Godwin – come back and supplement that great defense with a good offense. The Ravens also happen to be a team with elite potential that, by coincidence, ran into tough matchups. If Rashod Bateman returns soon, the Ravens could continue to spark interest.
We could also see potential winning streaks coming from the two Super Bowl teams, as the quarterbacks for the Rams and the Bengals adjust to their offensive lines – there’s a good chance that they figure it out.
The Jaguars and the Chargers could also throw their names in the mix as potential breakout candidates and could liven up an otherwise dull NFL slate.
If not, the NFL shouldn’t necessarily do anything about it. Let the process play out, and hopefully, it will sort itself out later this year or by next season. But this strange circumstance is certainly worth keeping an eye on.