Every year on opening day, in every pro and amateur sport, fans like to think their team has a shot at the title. That magic is what makes sports tick. We want to think our team has a shot to win it all. But for most teams, especially in small markets, that fantasy evaporates within weeks of opening day. Before long, most fans go from “this could be our year” to “wait ’til next year”.
Food for thought: Is parity really attainable in pro sports, or is it a fantasy that belongs in the land of unicorns and leprechauns at the end of the rainbow?
The answer is both. In 2011, parity is alive and well in the NFL. Green Bay and Pittsburgh, two small market teams with 8 combined Super Bowl victories, are headed to Dallas for Super Bowl 45. During the 45 year history of the Super Bowl, small market teams have won it all more than big market teams have. As a Steeler fan, I’m obliged to point out that the city of Pittsburgh has celebrated more Super Bowl victories than any city in America. In the NFL, parity is the norm.
Each major pro league has tried to create parity, as has the NCAA. Not only is the idea noble, but it is critical for all key areas of local team revenue (ticket sales, sponsorships, local broadcast rights). In the pros, each league has roughly the same number of teams (NFL-32, NBA & MLB-30), so each league’s goal is to give roughly 30 teams an even shot at a title on opening day. Each league has tried to create parity through various forms of salary caps, revenue sharing and luxury taxes. Yet the NFL is the only pro league in the US to truly achieve parity.
The NFL is particularly parity friendly for several reasons. The (currently) 16-game schedule is the biggest factor. It’s pretty easy for Green Bay to sell out their stadium for 8 home games a year. They’re the only game in town, and there are only 8 home games each year. It’s much tougher for the Milwaukee Bucks to sell out 41 home game. Even tougher for the Brewers to sell out 81. Green Bay’s famous season ticket waiting list is proof that a small market can easily support an NFL team.
The NFL schedule also allows for fans around the world to follow each week’s drama throughout the season. A short schedule prevents fan burnout, and allows us to become emotionally engaged in each team’s personality and style. We become enchanted with Cinderella stories, dynasties and rivalries. The NFL season is the original reality series.
The NBA, with its 41 home game season, has established some parity. The San Antonio Spurs have had great success in spite of their small market fan base. But one glance at the list of NBA champions over the years reveals a massive advantage for big market teams. In spite of a soft salary cap and sharing of national broadcast and licensing revenues, it is still very tough for a small market NBA team to compete. Small market teams have a dramatically smaller base of sponsors, season ticket holders and viewers that they can monetize. It’s tough to claim parity when the NBA team with the highest payroll (Lakers) has more than doubled the payroll of the team who spends the least on players (Kings). I also believe that the nature of the sport makes parity a challenge. Basketball, more than any other professional sport, depends on team chemistry. Chemistry takes a long time to develop, and contributes greatly to the establishment of dynasties in the NBA. The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs have all been playing together for a long time, and they’re tough to beat. In the NBA, stability matters.
MLB has its own challenges with parity. With no salary cap, MLB relies on the luxury tax to create parity. The Yankees always outspend the competition, and are often the favorites to win it all on opening day. In fact, the Yankees have appeared in the World Series more than any other team (40), more than twice as many times as any other team. However unlike basketball, MLB teams can develop chemistry quickly. Teams willing to put together a winning team are free to spend what they want. This leads to the frequency of “one hit wonders” in baseball. Teams like the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Florida Marlins can go on a 1-year run, win it all, and miss the playoffs the following season.
The bottom line is that while commissioners would like for fans to believe that parity exists, outside of the NFL it really doesn’t. And I don’t believe it ever will. Without hard salary caps and total revenue sharing, teams can’t ever be on equal economic footing. And in addition to economic factors, there are too many other intangibles that lead to success. Good management is critical, and can’t be regulated. Good management evaluates talent well, avoids bad long-term contracts and fosters a climate of success. Fan loyalty builds over time, and is only the result of many years of winning and success. While we all may want to believe our team has a real shot every year, MLB and NBA fans in smaller markets are usually spending a little time in fantasy land.
What are your thoughts?