Fair or foul? Parity and American sports - NBC Sports

Fair or foul? Parity and American sports
Examining just how "fair" our professional sports actually are
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February 3, 2014, 9:45 pm

So I was thinking about something after the Super Bowl ... the Seattle Mariners have never been to the World Series. They have had the occasional excellent team, beginning, of course, with the 116-win Mariners of 2001. The 1995 team was also quite good, as were the 1997 and 2000 teams. But they could not quite take that final step. The World Series, for Seattle fans, must feel a million miles away.

I was thinking how in Seattle people must think the NFL is a much fairer league since the Seahawks have now been to two Super Bowls, one which they believe the refs stole, and the other where they dominated the game like no team in decades. This NFL thing is pretty easy -- get the right coach, the right quarterback, the 12th man and, voila, championships rain.

Then I was thinking about ... my hometown, Cleveland.* The Browns have never been in a Super Bowl -- that goes back to the very beginning. There is no way to even begin describing how much hope and prayer and money and dreaming we invested into those Browns. And, as of right now, the scoreboard still looks like this:

Times they’ve left town: 1
Times they’ve fired coaches: 13.
Times they’ve reached the Super Bowl: 0.

Meanwhile, the Indians have been to the World Series twice and got relatively close a couple of other times. This year, when we expected nothing out of them, they won 92 games and made the playoffs. So in Cleveland people tend to think that the World Series is accessible and possible, and it’s the Super Bowl that’s a million miles away. It’s all a matter of perspective.

*This is also true for Detroit.

We spend a lot of time in America worrying about the fairness of our sports leagues. This does not seem to be as true in some other places. In the English Premier League, for instance, there are a handful of teams that make more, spend more, win more ... and more or less everyone seems to accept this as the way of big-time sports. I have a buddy in London who more than once has said to me, “The difference between here and the United States is that we like our leagues unequal and our health care equal, and you apparently prefer the opposite.”

You can decide for yourself about how our health-care system compares to theirs, but the sports part at least is true.

Formula One racing is an extraordinary bit of capitalism -- there seem almost no limits to what teams can spend, what engineering breakthroughs they can achieve, what speeds and handling advances they can reach. This is why Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel basically wins every championship and, at this point, every race.

Meanwhile our NASCAR is so concerned about achieving equality that they actually put RESTRICTOR PLATES on cars at certain tracks so that nobody can go too fast.

The Premier League’s results are self-evident. The Premier League as it’s now configured began in 1992 -- so there have been 21 championships. They have been won by five teams.

Manchester United — 13
Arsenal — 3
Chelsea — 3
Manchester City 1
Blackburn Rovers — 1

But here’s where it gets even more remarkable. Only three other teams — Newcastle, Liverpool and Aston Villa -- have even finished runner up. It’s just understood: If you are not rooting for one of the five or six biggest teams, your team has pretty much no chance to win the Premier League and not much of a chance to come especially close. The excitement in England for these other teams comes from other things besides championship races — from the many other tournaments going on, from the games against your biggest rival, from the occasional thrilling upset and, paradoxically perhaps, from the triumph or disappointment of a relegation battle.

Here, that just doesn’t fly. Our leagues don’t have relegation -- you’re stuck in the league no matter how badly you do. The thrill of upsets doesn’t last more than a few hours. The rivals games at the professional level don’t have the bite they once did. We don’t have any other tournaments to distract our attentions.

And so we worry about fairness. Equality. Parity. We obsess over it. The leagues institute salary caps and luxury taxes, reverse-order drafts and compensation picks, franchise player tags and shared revenue, all in a concerted effort to give every team a somewhat-even chance and every city a somewhat-reasonable hope for something good to happen.

So ... where do the sports stand? There are a million ways to look at it (of course) but I chose the simplest way I could think: I went back 30 seasons in each sport. I chose 30 because that is roughly the number of teams in each league (MLB, NHL, NBA all have 30; the NFL has 32). Also, this allows me to include the 1985 Kansas City Royals.

Here’s what we’ve got:

NFL
Won the Super Bowl: 14 teams
Made the Super Bowl: 25 teams
Most wins: Giants and 49ers 4; Cowboys and Patriots 3; Broncos, Packers, Washington, Steelers and Ravens 2 each.
Most appearances: Patriots 7, Broncos 6, Giants and 49ers 5.

Comment: The NFL prides itself on parity, and the results here are pretty good. It is interesting that for all the big market, small market talk in baseball, the NFL’s big markets (New York, New England, San Francisco in particular) have certainly done better than smaller markets like Cleveland, Kansas City, Jacksonville and Cincinnati. Of course, Green Bay is usually brought up as an example of how small markets can thrive in the NFL. I do wonder, though, if Green Bay is still a small market -- it’s kind of a national team in many ways.

* * *

MLB

Won the World Series: 18 teams
Made the World Series: 25 teams
Most wins: Yankees 5; Red Sox 3; Giants, Cardinals, Twins, Blue Jays and Marlins 2.
Most appearances: Yankees 7; Cardinals 6; Braves 5; Red Sox, Giants and Phillies 4.

Comment: When it comes to the big game, at least for the last 30 years, baseball is looking awfully competitive with the NFL on the parity front. We appear to be entering into another baseball spending spree with all the regional television money that is about to be dumped on teams like the Dodgers. And with that comes the usual worriers, of which I’m often one. But so far there’s something about baseball structure that eludes the big spenders.

* * *

NBA
Won the NBA Championship: 8 teams
Made the NBA Finals: 19 teams
Most wins: Lakers 8; Bulls 6; Spurs 4; Heat, Celtics and Pistons 3.
Most appearances: Lakers 13; Bulls and Celtics 6; Spurs and Pistons 5.

Comment: Well, here is the least competitive league in American sports — which might be why the NBA appeals to so many around the world. There’s a baffling salary cap in place and there are countless baffling rules about player movement. But in the end, this is the only league in America where someone like LeBron James can call up a couple of buddies, come meet in Miami and win championships.

* * *

NHL
Won the Stanley Cup: 16 teams
Made the Stanley Cup Finals: 23 teams
Most wins: Oilers 5; Red Wings 4, Devils and Penguins 3.
Most appearances: Oilers 7, Red Wins 6, Devils 5; Penguins, Bruins and Flyers 4.

Comment: A little bit more competitive than I realized -- 16 different teams winning in 30 seasons is actually quite open-ended. I guess the most interesting part is that 1980s powers — Edmonton, the Islanders and Montreal in particular -- have not been in the Finals in two decades. It seems like the game took a very sudden shift in the mid-1990s. I’m sure some big hockey fans will be happy to explain.

* * *

Obviously, you can draw your own conclusions. But I think baseball has probably been the most competitive sport in America the last 30 or so years, even with all the money spent by the Yankees and Red Sox and Angels and others. The NFL does let in a couple more playoff teams and I think (though I haven’t looked too closely) that it’s easier to make a quick turnaround in the NFL than it is in baseball.

But I think the way baseball is played, the way the salaries are structured (with the youngest players and often best players still making a lot less money than the older guys) and the crapshoot that is the baseball postseason, baseball is still your city’s best shot.

One thing is pretty clear: The NBA is NOT your city’s best shot. Unless LeBron happens to like it.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski