The annual Forbes list of the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world was released last week. There are no real surprises. The Cowboys are No. 1. The New York Yankees are number two. The New England Patriots come in at No. 6 behind a couple of European soccer teams. The list is dominated by the NFL — 29 NFL franchises make the top 50.
This is a list of franchise value, not competence. That’s probably why the Cowboys are able to rank at No. 1, the New York Knicks are able to rank at No 7, and the Rams and the Jets can come in at No. 12 and No. 13. It also doesn’t punish teams for simply being mediocre. That’s likely why the New York Giants are ranked at No. 10. Lack of accomplishments has nothing to do with franchise value, either, because if teams actually had to have accomplished something to be worth something, there’s no way the Houston Texans would rank No. 20.
The NFL is the ultimate moneymaking venture. According to the Forbes article, the average NFL team earned an operating profit of $91 million and none of the league's teams earned less than $26 million. Thus, even historically inept franchises like the Browns and the Jaguars are among the 50 most valuable sports franchises in the world. Sure, an owner might have to spend a lot of money to purchase the franchise, but then, the owner doesn’t have to do anything else but just stay out of the way.
Good teams are punished in the draft, forced to pick at the bottom of each round, while bad teams get the first choice of the crop of college players. The national TV contracts in football are far bigger than in any other sport, and all NFL teams split that revenue evenly, despite the sometimes huge differences in how many people watch each game. Teams also share in the results of merchandising, which means the Texans make the same amount of money off the sale of Aaron Rodgers jerseys as the Packers make.
Very few NFL teams have to pay anywhere near the bulk of the costs needed for new stadiums or for stadium improvements (that is the same for most sports, but most sports also use stadiums and arenas more often in a year than do NFL teams). NFL teams also generally get to avoid the pitfalls of guaranteed contracts, and they do not have to cover costs for farm systems and minor league contracts.
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The Houston Texans are 106-134 over 15 NFL seasons. The team has made the playoffs just four times, and has just six winning seasons in its history. The Texans have won ten games or more just twice. Yet the team still manages to sell out every home game, despite an utter lack of any quantifiable success. The Texans are worth more than storied NFL franchises like the Steelers and the Packers, and also somehow worth more than franchises like the Seahawks that have become known for NFL success.
Texans owner Bob McNair is making money without his squad ever having gotten close to a Super Bowl. His team lacks a history, and it plays in a generic stadium with a generic look. Yet only seven NFL franchises are worth more money than his? Thus comes about what appears to be the operating philosophy of the Houston Texans: Maintain mediocrity.
With the NFL's business model, there is little incentive for McNair to improve the Texans. The team sells out games and moves merchandise no matter the result on the field. Bob McNair has hit on the ultimate gravy team, making money without having to worry about results.
But let’s perhaps remember this the next time McNair comes begging the taxpayers for money to improve the luxury suites or to install a new video board or something else that would be expensive yet not improve the on-field product. He’s the owner of the 20th most valuable sports franchise in the world, so maybe he can afford to start paying for a few things himself.