The Salary Cap Illusion

In another example of the random thoughts that are constantly going through my brain, this weekend I got to thinking about how an imposed salary cap is supposed to bring "competitive balance" to the leagues that have implemented it and make a level playing field.

For those non-sports fans who may be reading this, a salary cap is when a professional sports league mandates how much money it's teams are allowed to spend on players. In theory it keeps large market teams (New York, LA, Chicago, etc.) from spending $100 million putting a team together, while smaller market teams who aren't as flush with cash (think Minneapolis, Phoenix and Nashville) are stuck trying to build a roster with 1/10 the resources. Leagues will set a maximum amount each season that teams have to stay under. If teams can only spend (and I'm pulling this figure completely out of my ass) $40 million, your smaller teams have an equal chance of signing big name players as anyone else. It also keeps individual salaries from getting too high, as no team can spend 90% of it's salary cap on 1 player.

The NBA has the strictest salary cap. You're not allowed to go over the set amount, period. The NFL and NHL both have salary caps but will allow you to spend more with increasingly higher penalties the more you go over, to the point that no team can realistically afford to go over by any significant amount. MLB in contrast has no salary cap at all. Teams can spend $1 billion if they have it to form their roster.

With all of that said, it would seem the NBA would have the most number of different teams winning championships, MLB the least, and the NFL and NBA somewhere in the middle. I decided to pull the figures over the last 25 years:

  • NBA: 11 different teams
  • NFL: 13 different teams
  • NHL: 13 different teams
  • MLB: 14 different teams

This is exactly what the salary cap is supposed to prevent. Going back less years the numbers are even worse. The NBA has been dominated by the same teams for more than a decade.

This isn't a complete indictment of a salary cap, as there are no doubt other benefits, but competitive balance isn't one of them.