Socialism, Redistribution and the Road to the Super Bowl

I, like more than 100 million other people, will be tuning in to watch Superbowl XLIX come February first. The NFL is the world's most successful sports league, a $9 billion business that makes more money and more money per franchise than any other league, any sport, any country, period.

So it's not surprising that at this time of year, even if it's just during the pre-game interviews, I like to take a few minutes to celebrate what may be America's greatest socialist institution, and the active system of redistribution that helps make it so great.

That's right: The NFL is a fundamentally socialist institution, and redistribution makes it great.

Now, I realize that the league's 32 teams are mostly owned by rich white men; to be accurate, two are owned by couples, three by a group of heirs of the previous owner, one by a woman (also the heir of the previous owner), one -- my Green Bay Packers -- by a corporation, and the remaining 25 by rich white men. And I know tickets are spectacularly expensive, and the NFL vigorously litigates its intellectual property rights in broadcast and branding, and while I'm certainly not the first to point this out, I know that the idea that this most American of sports institutions is socialist might seem counter-intuitive -- even offensive.

And yet, one of the things that makes the NFL great is that, in any given year, any team could fight its way through 16 games to the playoffs and the Super Bowl: the level of competition and athleticism is mind-boggling, and each game is an important part of that drive and any team can be the better team on any given Sunday.

The NFL ensures this is true through an active system of redistribution. Essentially, television broadcast revenues are pooled and shared among the teams, while stadium and team revenues are kept by the team. But television revenues -- nearly $5 billion in 2014 -- are well over 50 percent of league revenues. The inescapable conclusion is that the league takes more than half of all the money the teams bring in, and then spreads it around to teams in smaller markets that would otherwise receive very little in broadcast revenues.

The league, like America, is a democracy, but it's a democracy with 32 "citizens" most of whom are very rich white men. They are the cream of the 1 percent, and they want the team they own to make them even richer, and yet they have agreed to a tax rate on their revenues of well over 50 percent, and to have the league take that money and simply give it to teams that don't make as much. It's hard to imagine any group of Americans, much less a group of incredibly wealthy businessmen, voting to raise their own tax rate above 50 percent, and yet they did -- because they know it works.

Of course, the NFL also has a salary cap, something else that would be quite inconceivable in most avenues of American life. Across the pond the Brits just recently gave up on their challenge to EU rules imposing caps on bankers bonuses. Yet these hard-nosed businessmen have imposed a salary cap on their own operations and of their own volition in order to keep the level of competition as high as it can be, each game as exciting as it can be, and the league and each of the teams in it as filthy rich as they can be. They also allow a player's union, another socialist institution that is on the decline in America generally.

The NFL is a heavily regulated system with a unionized labor pool and an effective tax rate well over 50 percent, and that system -- which is indisputably socialist! -- was chosen voluntarily by a small group of very wealthy, very successful Americans because they know that level of regulation and redistribution creates a rising tide that raises all the ships, raises the level of competition, raises the quality of the league's product, and raises the revenues of each all of them.

"Redistribution" is a dirty word in American politics, and "Socialism" sounds almost like "Communism" to most Americans. And yet on February 1st more than 100 million will tune in to watch what will almost certainly be yet another shining success in the NFL's annual parade of socialist triumphs.

Between the nachos and the beer runs, take a minute to raise a glass to socialist redistribution and higher taxes. You may hate the words, but $9 billion in league revenues and the most watched TV event on the planet just can't be wrong. Heck, you might even think about voting for them next time someone gives you the opportunity: if it's good enough for those billionaire owners, it should be good enough for the rest of us.