Parity vs. Clarity in sports leagues

By Julian Reed

What is greatness? What attracts the masses to it like moth’s to a flame? What about an even playing field, equality, etc? There aren’t easy answers to any of these questions.

Sports reside in the grey area. Each end of the spectrum offers its own benefits that attract audiences. Does either methodology work better?

Long term greatness with dynasties, domination serves necessary roles for the sports/entertainment world. For starters, teams like the Alabama Crimson Tide, Miami Heat, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers, etc provide clarity in their respective leagues.

Clarity as far as what it takes to win, what can be accomplished with continuity, strong leadership and great coaching. It gives the public at large something interesting to love or hate through polarization, and sports media to sensationalize.

Devil’s advocate would ask if this strategy is good for the individual leagues, which is highly debatable.

Having dominant teams in league’s like the NBA and MLB serves as a proverbial double edged sword. Dominance generates great buzz and collective casual viewers to bolster TV ratings and ad revenue. However, it also dilutes the overall product of each individual league and tends to hurt a lot of the lesser market franchises and general interest in the league as a whole. Because teams in these leagues are not limited by salary caps, the cream is guaranteed to rise to the top.

The most committed franchises win more often than not in these leagues. One would ask if there was a more viable approach.

The opposing option of parity is utilized very successfully by pro leagues like the NHL and the NFL. Most of the teams in these respective leagues are consistently competitive throughout the season making playoff races and the postseason extremely interesting.

Championship winners vary over a much larger portion of the teams in these leagues. Those are some the benefits to parity largely stemming from salary caps and revenue sharing. There’s a set limit on what clubs in these leagues can spend, thus it puts a greater onus on good ownership and general managers.
​Particularly with the NFL, a lot of the draw for people is that the vast majority of its games on television are consumable because with parity, essentially the entire league is pulled into the middle versus the opposition where if you spend more money or reside in a better market like New York or Los Angeles you typically are guaranteed some degree of success, thus a small portion of the teams will enjoy most of it.

Take the current NFL season for example. Of 32 teams, only about four or five are clear cut out of playoff races. That’s parity in a nutshell. Close to everybody has a chance making these leagues highly entertaining because of the unpredictability every season. Almost anybody could win the Super Bowl.

Hope, that’s what the NFL has masterfully sold fan bases all over the country. But despite all of those facts, the result is of questionable value (The trade off).
​Is it great when most of the teams in a sports league are competitive?

Most people would answer yes to that question, but the crux of this question is highly subjective. Would you rather have a league filled with C+ and B- teams which can be argued as a lesser product or a league with a handful of teams with a chance to win a championship but a clearly discernible A+ product at the top?

The truth is, there is no easy answer to this grey area in sports. The ratings speak for themselves though. We like the Los Angeles Lakers, Miami Heat, Alabama Crimson Tide, New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, etc.

Dominance is compelling television. But to juxtapose in interesting fashion, the NFL is the most dominant entertainment product sport in the U.S today by far. The competitive league of average and above average teams putting on the best show. So more or less as a society we like both options but for different reasons.

​A sport like life isn’t limited to a single brush stroke. The canvas is full of a plethora of color palettes that combine to form an aesthetically pleasing piece of artistic beauty personified. The NFL succeeds for the very opposite reason the NBA and Major League Baseball does.

Whether you like a gladiator style death duel to the championship or a handful of teams bolstering the strongest rosters and providing the entertainment, I’d wager your sports gullet through the upcoming holiday season shall be filled in more ways than one. Parity isn’t always great for sports and vice versa.


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