Friday, May 6, 2011

Countdown Friday: Parity In Sports

We're back, after another brief hiatus. Aren't finals just the worst? Yes, yes they are. But there comes a time when a man can no longer let a few silly tests stand between him and his sports blog. So here we are.

Anyhoo, in light of the recent happenings in the sports world (the NHL setting a record for most ever overtime games in a postseason...less than 2 rounds in, NBA teams like Memphis, even Dallas, making some series playoff splashes, the MLS trying) I thought it would be a good time to look at parity in the major sports leagues. (No, not that type of parody! Self promotion? A bit.) Which leagues do it well? Which leave something to be desired? Some of the answers are obvious, but a few of the rankings will surprise you.

5. National Basketball Association - That's right. Competitive balance is at its worst in the NBA. Even worse than baseball. In the last 30 years (30! That's a lot of years!) there have only been 8 different champions. Just 8. And 2 of those teams were only one-time champions, which means that 6 teams have accounted for 28 of the last 30 league champions. The lowest seed to even win a title was a #6 seed, which happened over 15 years ago. And the salary cap is an absolute farce (the ceiling was set at $58.04 this season). Hopefully, competitive balance is something the league tries to address during the upcoming collective bargaining. Given David Stern's record as commissioner, I wouldn't hold my breath.

4. Major League Soccer - The MLS needs competitive balance in order to survive. The sad truth is that much parity is driven by the fact that dominant players in the league leave for European soccer rather quickly. In the league's 15-year history, there have been 9 different champions and 11 different teams to appear in the finals, which indicates a decent level of balance (especially considering the size of the league in the early years). It will be interesting to see how the league maintains balance as it continues to expand in the years to come.

3. Major League Baseball - Baseball gets a bad rap, and deservedly so. Payroll disparities are mind-boggling, and half-hearted attempts at revenue sharing have done nothing to fix the problem. But interestingly enough, there is remarkable parity at the top of the league. Keeping our window of time set at 30 years (we'll add one more because of the cancelled World Series in 1994), there have been 20 different World Series champions. Impressive, right? The major problem is the lack of balance between the top and the bottom of the league. Bad teams like the Pirates and Royals seem to be stuck in the basement of their divisions year after year. Still, if you think back long enough, any team that's terrible now was good not too long ago.

2. National Hockey League - The NHL emerged from the 2005 Lockout a fundamentally changed league. Since then, a strict salary cap has forced teams to build around a small core group of players, with rapid changes elsewhere. Just look at the Chicago Blackhawks as a perfect example; the team won the Stanley Cup in 2010 and then partially dismantled immediately after. The league has gotten more exciting and is much more balanced. The fact that playoff seeding is essentially irrelevant shows how closely separated the skill levels of each club are.

1. National Football League - The NFL has a strong reputation as the most balanced league. That's because it is. The league maintains parity on three very important levels. Game-to-game, any team has a reasonable chance at winning (the old "any given Sunday" adage). Week-to-week, there is only narrow separation between teams at the top of the division and the other franchises. Season-to-season, there is rapid player turnover, allowing fans to enter each new NFL season with "realistic" hopes that this might be the year. We can only hope that this strong level of balance remains once a new CBA is reached. 

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