NBA vs NFL: Can We Compare Them?
Welcome to the ultimate comparison between the NBA vs. NFL! As the pinnacle of North American sports, the NBA and NFL capture the attention of millions, boasting monumental figures, exorbitant salaries, extensive media coverage and unparalleled TV revenue. However, the question remains: Can we truly compare the NBA vs NFL?
This page analyzes every aspect, from league structure and schedules to salaries, merchandise, entertainment value, and the popularity of each league’s top performers. By exploring these vital factors, we endeavour to shed light on the compelling comparison between two of the world’s most preeminent and culturally significant professional sports leagues.
Where to start when talking about the differences between the two leagues? First, let’s get into a further breakdown of the NBA vs the NFL and see what the differences are and how they impact how each league stacks up to one another.
The Sports Themselves
The most obvious difference between the NBA and NFL is the one between the sports themselves. The NFL has a much slower, more physical pace compared to the NBA and the quick runs down the court that happen in basketball. The NBA players also arguably feature more sheer athleticism than most positions in the NFL outside of wide receiver and defensive back.
One could also point to the number of players on the court/field. In the NBA, each team has five players on the court at a given time, with substitutions being made throughout the game. In the NFL, there are 11 players on the field for each team during each game, though the NFL has a far deeper bench with 55 active roster players.
Another major difference between the two leagues is the season length. In the NBA, the regular season begins in October and ends in April, with 82 games happening during that span. This means that there are several games happening nearly every night of the week for six months.
Football, on the other hand, is much more condensed. The NFL recently increased from 16 to 17 games over the course of an 18-week season. This is partially due to the fact that the NFL season is much more rigorous than the NBA due to the physical nature of the game.
In the NFL, games are staggered from Thursday to Monday, with a feature game on both of those days, the bulk of the slate on Sunday, and the occasional Saturday game. Games begin in September and run until the first week of January. The NBA runs night in and night out for six months, with teams averaging roughly three games per month. That is not even including the playoffs, which are covered below.
The playoffs also have a much different spin between both leagues, both in length and what it takes to win a championship. Let’s start with the NBA playoffs. In the NBA, there are four rounds that run from April to June: the quarterfinals, semifinals, conference finals, and NBA finals. Each round is a best-of-seven format as well. Each team sends eight teams to the playoffs, though the NBA now has a play-in tournament where the 7th through 10th seeds play to determine the 7th and 8th seeds.
On the NFL side of things, each conference sends six teams to the playoffs, with a seventh earning a bye by capturing the top seed. Each round is a single-elimination format that begins in January and culminates with the Super Bowl in February. Whereas NBA teams must win 16 games to capture the championship, it is possible to do so in just three wins depending on seeding in the NFL.
Salaries are interesting. The highest-paid player in the NFL – Aaron Rodgers, who will earn over $50 million in 2023 – is slightly higher than the highest-paid NBA player (roughly $48 million). When it comes to the average salary, however, there is a difference. Because of the smaller roster size, the NBA has a higher minimum salary. That number was $898,000 as of 2021, with the NFL minimum being $660,000. NBA rosters are slightly more than a dozen, while NFL rosters are comprised of 55 players.
The audience reached by each league differs greatly as well. For the NFL, it is more of an attraction, with each team having nine home games every other season. Because of this, the league averages roughly 67,000 fans per game against 256 total games. Due to the length of the NBA season, that number is closer to 18,000 per game. There are also nearly six times as many games in an NBA season, 1,230 to 256.
The answer to this question depends on who you ask. In North America, the NFL has more revenue, and the Super Bowl dominates the NBA Final in the ratings. In Europe and Asia, the NBA has a greater foothold than the NFL.
Which League Is More Popular in Canada?
Neither is the preferred sport of Canada, with hockey taking that mantle. When it comes to the NFL and NBA, the NBA is the more popular option, partially due to having an NBA team (Toronto Raptors). There is also the CFL to appease viewers, yet another detraction from the NFL.
NBA vs NFL: Which League Is More Profitable?
At the end of the day, one of the most important factors to consider is money. The most popular sports tend to bring in the most money, and that is definitely the case with both the NBA and NFL. Here is how it shakes out:
What is interesting is that the NFL sells more tickets for the average game than the NBA by a huge amount. That said, the NBA makes a significantly higher percentage of its revenue through ticket sales than the NFL. In 2022, the NFL regular season ticket revenue accounted for roughly 1.25% of total revenue. Comparatively, the NBA’s ticket revenue accounts for more than 20% of its total revenue. The NFL sees more fans per year, and ticket revenue continues to climb, making it slightly more profitable than the NBA.
This is where the biggest difference may be. The NBA signed their latest deal for $2 billion in broadcasting rights but is due to renegotiate after the 2024-25 season. While that number is nothing to scoff at, it isn’t where the NFL is. For Thursday Night Football alone, Amazon paid $1.2 billion for the rights. The NFL gets another $2 billion each from NBC and Fox, $2.1 billion from CBS, and $2.7 billion from ESPN. With more than $8 billion in television deals, the NFL is the king of television.
Merchandising is evolving in both sports, especially with NBA teams now wearing ads on their jerseys. Their total merchandise accounts for well over a billion per year and has shown steady growth, which is part of the reason total revenue has grown. The NFL, on the other hand, still reigns supreme. They bring in over $4 billion in merchandise from licensed hats, jerseys, shirts, and more. The NFL is a dominant organization from top to bottom.
Social Media Interactions
Both leagues have taken full advantage of social media. In addition to frequent fan interactions, it is a tremendous way to build team and league branding, promote merchandise and ticket sales, and share highlights that drive excitement for each league.
One of the hottest debates between fans of both leagues will be about which is more entertaining. Since they are two completely different games, it is worth looking at the positives that each brings to the table.
NBA: Athletic, fast-paced, large swings in scoring
Fans of the league love the athleticism of the players and the faster pacing of the game as a whole. The action moves swiftly, fueled by fast-break rushes. There is also the matter of a team being down by 15 or 20 and having the ability to swing that to a lead in no time.
NFL: Physical, more strategic, team-oriented
On the NFL side of things, collisions are a major selling point. It is a hard-nosed game where violent tackles are part of the game. There is also more strategic importance from play to play as the best coaches have entire playbooks of ways to succeed from play to play. The individual also means less to the outcome of the game, with some rare exceptions. A team effort is truly needed to win on NFL Sundays.
A point of disparity worth pointing out is the playoff picture. While the seeding works the same – best plays worst seed – the way teams get, there is different, as is the playoff structure needed to reach the NBA Final or Super Bowl.
A major difference between the NBA and NFL is the length of the playoffs. In the NBA, after 82 games, there is a play-in tournament. This tournament takes the teams ranked 7th through 10th and awards the winners with the 7th and 8th playoff seed. There are then four rounds, all of which are best-of-seven format. The winning team will have to be victorious 16 times to capture the NBA championship.
The NFL, meanwhile, also has four rounds, but they are of the single-elimination variety. Teams who earn the top seed in each conference could potentially win the Super Bowl with just three victories. The style of play is a big reason why the playoffs are shorter, as each team has endured 17 games of brutal football and countless injuries throughout the year.
Fan engagement has changed exponentially in recent years, partially due to the rise of sports betting. Now, it is all too common for an event to center around taking a particular player and featuring them in ad spots about both the team and the player. The NBA is active throughout the playoffs both from a social media engagement perspective as well as through advertising. It is not uncommon for teams to run giveaways or “whiteouts” to encourage fan engagement.
The NBA playoffs, prominently featured on networks like ESPN, TBS, and TNT, emphasize match-ups with high star power. For example, the Los Angeles Lakers often receive heightened coverage due to the presence of LeBron James, a player synonymous with success, evidenced by his four championship rings. This emphasis on star athletes like LeBron, who has secured multiple NBA titles, adds a significant allure to the games, attracting viewers and bettors alike.
In contrast, the NFL’s advertising power peaks during the regular season, culminating in the Super Bowl, a cultural event with over 40 million viewers annually. The allure of the Super Bowl is unparalleled, but the NBA playoffs, with stars like LeBron and the legacy of his championship rings, hold their own as a major sports spectacle.
While the league focuses on the bottom line, from a fan perspective, it is about the teams and players. Each league has its own set of players and teams that stand tall above the rest, garnering more attention for their respective league. Teams are much smaller in the NBA, with roster sizes right around 12-15, not counting those playing in the D League. The average NFL roster, meanwhile, includes 55 players, practice squad players, and long-term injured reserve players.
While both the NBA and NFL would love for every franchisee to be as popular as the other, that just isn’t the case. There are teams in both leagues that are not only the most popular in their respective leagues but among all sports teams.
The most popular teams in the NFL can change in short bursts, though a few manage to stay the test of time. Teams like the Cowboys and Packers have been popular since the 1960s and boast championship histories. The Patriots and Chiefs, meanwhile, have had the recent success that has propelled them to greater fandom.
- New England Patriots
- Green Bay Packers
- Dallas Cowboys
- Kansas City Chiefs
- Pittsburgh Steelers
There are two camps when it comes to popular NBA teams. There is the flavour of the month teams, the ones with popular superstars, and the teams that have become institutions within the league itself. This falls in line with the old school vs new school debate that is currently a hot-button topic.
- Los Angeles Lakers
- Boston Celtics
- Golden State Warriors
- Chicago Bulls
- Miami Heat
The key to the success of both leagues is the players. There are a few names that get talked about a bit more than the others, with these names being at the top of the list on a pretty consistent basis:
- LeBron James – You can’t be considered the GOAT without being talked about on a daily basis, can you?
- Stephen Curry – Changed the way the game is played and shoots the lights out most nights, generating discussion league-wide
- James Harden – Harden can be among the elite in the game when his attitude and proclivity for getting traded don’t get in the way
- Kevin Durant – Arguably the greatest scorer in the history of the game, his social media antics tend to distract from his game
- Kyrie Irving – His controversial views and frequency of trade demands take away from his insane handles and skills
- Tom Brady – The greatest to ever do it, his every move garners national media attention
- Patrick Mahomes – The new Brady, Mahomes is doing things that few others have ever managed in their entire careers
- Aaron Rodgers – Most of the talk in the last few seasons has been about his relationship with the Packers and where he might land next
- Lamar Jackson – He is due a new deal, but the Ravens aren’t signing, leading to speculation about his future on a daily basis
- Dak Prescott – Like it or not, the Cowboys generate discussion, and being the quarterback of the Cowboys is going to earn you a lot of attention
There is a short list of the best in both the NBA and NFL. Let’s take a look at the five players considered to be the best in each sport:
- Nikola Jokic – Back-to-back MVP who has a real chance of making it a third win in as many years
- Giannis Antetokounmpo – The Greek Freak has been a dominant force, MVP, and has led the Bucks to an NBA title.
- Luka Doncic – Arguably the most electric player in the league, a dominant scorer, and one of the most talented young players in the game
- LeBron James – Despite his age, LeBron is still an impact player and arguably the greatest player of all time.
- Stephen Curry – The greatest shooter of all time whose style has led to the greater importance of 3-point shooting
- Patrick Mahomes – The guy in the NFL, multi-time MVP, multi-time Super Bowl winner who makes insane throws look routine
- Aaron Donald – Not only the best defensive player in the game but in the discussion for one of the greatest of all-time
- Josh Allen – A threat to Mahomes’ reign, may be able to do the impossible: bring a championship to Buffalo
- Aaron Rodgers – Multiple MVPs, the face of the Packers for 15+ years, and one of the best quarterbacks in the game
- TJ Watt – Watt is a game-changer and co-holds the single-season sack record while completely changing the Steelers when he is in the lineup
Before discussing the salaries of the two leagues, roster size is worth considering. In the NBA, the average roster is roughly 12-15 at the very most. The NFL, meanwhile, sees 55 players on the active regular-season roster as well as players on the practice squad or injured lists. That said, the average of first-year players may be surprising. In the NFL, the average first-year player makes roughly $365,000. In the NBA, that number is just under $840,000. There is also the difference between the top end of the scale.
In recent years, the NFL elite has caught up to the NBA elite. For instance, the top five in the NFL earn between $45 and $50 million, while the top five in the NBA earn between $42 and $48 million. Signing bonuses also play a major part in NFL contracts though they do make the pay structure a bit more complicated.
Perhaps the most interesting consideration to make when comparing the NBA and NFL is viewership numbers. While the NFL is considered to be the more popular league on the whole, the number of annual viewers is an interesting thing to look at. The NFL has seen a steady decline in its viewership numbers nearly every year since 2015. Granted, their numbers are still much higher than the average NBA game, but this has, in part, to do with the sheer number of games there are in an NBA season.
The NBA saw a four-year high of viewers in 2017-18 and has fluctuated since. There are issues with the game that impact “watchability”, such as the load management of star players. For now, the NFL has the higher viewership, but the league is attempting to stop the bleeding of lost viewers.
More Facts About NBA and NFL
Not everything can come down to viewership or revenue numbers. There are other ways in which both leagues make an impact, though it is in very different ways. The draft process is also quite a bit different. In the NBA, the draft is only two rounds. Even then, most players drafted outside of the top 15 generally do not make the league. For the NFL, meanwhile, there are seven rounds, and teams expect to get starters within the first three rounds.
Expert's Conclusion on NBA vs NFL
NBA & NFL Expert
In conclusion, the NBA and NFL present distinct characteristics and dynamics that make them difficult to compare directly. But one thing is for sure; both leagues are immensely popular, attracting millions of viewers, generating substantial revenue, and boasting celebrity athletes. Obviously, there are some key differences when examining the sports themselves, season length, playoff structures, salaries, entertainment value, team and player popularity, viewership, and revenue sources. However, appreciating the unique qualities of the NBA vs NFL allows fans to enjoy the rich experiences they provide in their own respective right.
Not everything was covered in the space above. Let’s look into a few of the most commonly asked questions about the two leagues.
The short answer is “yes,” but NBA numbers are climbing while NFL numbers have been on a downward trend for years.
The NFL brought in roughly $14 billion in total revenue in 2022, while the NBA brought in $7.4 billion. This has been a trend for years.
Though the NFL is king in North America, there is little doubt that the NBA is bigger on a global scale. The NFL is attempting to go global, while the NBA already has a huge following in Europe and Asia.
This is subjective. While the NFL is considered to be more taxing physically, the NBA is considered to have the best athletes.
The NFL is king in terms of revenue. They have earned $16 billion in revenue compared to the NBA, which has earned roughly $8 million.
We Cover More Relevant Sports Topics Below
Rowan is a sports betting journalist with an established presence in the sports media industry through his thought-invoking coverage and commentary surrounding major leagues like the NBA, NFL, and NCAA. While Rowan specializes in NBA, NFL, and NCAA college sports coverage, he consistently follows and reports on every major sport in North America.
Facts checked by Eamon Doggett