The NFL vs. The NBA

Supply chain figures out which cooler – The League or The Association

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If the NFL is king, then the NBA is its long-suffering crown prince. With the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson and concussion scandals, you’d think the social media and sports radio haranguing might force the NFL to abdicate its dominance (ratings dominance, hearts-and-minds dominance, page view click dominance, etc.). But the NBA has yet to ascend to the throne.

We love watching the NFL and the NBA. The difference is that every single NFL game feels like an EVENT while NBA games too often feel like, well, Tuesday night.

Can the NBA supplant the NFL as the real America’s Pastime*?

Let’s look at the optimized supply chain to find the answer.

On Time Delivery (OTD) – The broad definition of this supply chain metric is “getting your customers what they want when they want it.” The NFL and NBA take different approaches to this concept, based on the nature of their games.

The violence of the NFL limits teams to playing once a week, while NBA teams play 82 games a season, with several of those coming on back-to-back nights. Because of this, the NFL has historically taken flea market approach to on-time delivery – i.e. “we’re setting up on CBS once a week and you know where to find us to get your heirloom tomatoes and gridiron action.”

The NBA is more like Amazon. “Any game you want, we have on hand – just tune in to add it to your shopping cart.” But with the advent of League Passes and Red Zones and apps – both the NBA and NFL now deliver the customer/fan what they want, when they want it.

Which is, any time they want it.

Edge: NFL (The NFL wins here because what they’ve done to train the customer. We block out entire swaths of our Sundays to devote to football. The NFL has trained the customer to demand their product when they want to deliver it.)

Inventory optimization – Again, a broad supply chain topic.

For the sake of this comparison, let’s take a look at how the NFL and NBA approach safety stock and obsolete inventory.

An NFL team can only put 11 players on the field at a time but has 53 players on its roster. That means that when Carson Palmer goes down, the Cardinals can plug in Drew Stanton and win. Same with the Eagles losing Nick Foles and winning (mostly) with Mark Sanchez.

An NBA team puts 5 players on the court and can have 12 on the active roster. That means when Kevin Durant is sidelined for the first 6 weeks of a season, the Thunder playoff seeding is in jeopardy.

The NFL understands the value of maintaining a safety stock of players. But when inventory becomes obsolete, i.e. a player retires, the NBA plugs that inventory into head coaching roles, assistant coaching positions, analysts, GMs, color commentators, and various VP/ambassador of the game/team roles. The NFL has fewer games, so there are fewer TV jobs and most (not all) NFL head coaches are career coaches. The NFL’s obsolete inventory policy used to be to kick retired players out of the door and hope they would hobble quietly onto their golf courses and Barcaloungers. But the concussion conversation and broken state of former players have forced the NFL to take a closer look at this.

Edge: NFL (The violence of game forces it to have a strong safety stock policy, while its recent focus on the care of retired players means that it's figuring out how to optimize their all-important inventory – i.e. the human beings who play the game.)

Customer Relationship Management (CRM) – How do the NFL and NBA manage their customer relationships (i.e. fan base)? Just Google NFL scandal and try to count the hits. The NBA is efficient when it wants to get its scandals out of its arenas and owners boxes, just ask Donald Sterling.

Edge: NFL (To measure CRM, look at whether your customers keep coming back – and the NFL’s ratings prove one thing – it doesn’t matter what happens off the field, we keep tuning in in record numbers.)

Cost of Goods Sold (COGS) – How much does it cost you to sell the product you sell?

The NFL has non-guaranteed contracts and both leagues have salary caps. But the average NBA salary is just north of $5M while the average NFL contract is just shy of $2M.

Edge: NFL (a pattern is emerging)

Sourcing – the NBA does source from low-cost countries (how many Chinese players suit up in the NFL?), but how many people outside Phoenix are tuning in to see Goran Dragic run the point (no matter how awesome he is)?

Customer Satisfaction – 26.3 million Americans tuned in to watch Game 7 of the 2013 NBA Finals, the freakin’ championship do-or-die game. The NFL averaged 34.7 million viewers per game for last year’s wild card weekend. That’s a walk off.**

Sustainability – in supply chain terms, is your supply chain sustainable (especially environmentally) in a world that’s increasingly resource-constrained? The NFL has been around twice as long as the NBA. The NFL is built to last. Its players play on a gridiron, for Pete’s sake. Iron! The NBA plays on a court. Courts are for royalty. And we’ve already shown that, in terms of royalty, the NFL is king – hands down.

But the NBA isn’t really a crown prince. It’s more like the dude who sits on the throne when the king steps out of the room. He can be very entertaining and all, but as soon as the king comes back, we turn our attention back to him. You think if Elvis walked onto the stage at a Justin Bieber concert, that anyone would even notice the Biebs? The NFL is Elvis.

(But even Elvis needed to tend to his drug problem and his image. NFL - please pay attention. We love you, but you gotta take care of your players and your players' families.)

*Apologies, MLB. If this blog post were written in 1962, it would have included you.

**There you go, baseball. But that’s all you get.