In a recent article for Slate, soccer columnist Brian Phillips took an interesting look at the fine line that sports leagues must walk when determining the appropriate balance between greatness and parity. Phillips ironically juxtaposes the cut throat nature of soccer leagues in socialist-leaning Europe against the more egalitarian leagues in capitalistic America. According to Phillips, while Europe has opted for the “beautiful game”, the United States has gone down the path of “competitive balance”.
Would it be worth achieving greater parity in soccer if it meant breaking up Barcelona? (Is it OK if I answer no?) By the same token, imagine if American leagues had developed along the lines of European soccer. Would it have been more fun to watch the Lakers trample the Bucks by 40, back in the day, if the Lakers had a roster as stacked as the 1992 Dream Team? – Brian Phillips, Slate, March 3, 2011
Although Phillips raises many interest philosophical points, he misses a couple of big ones that help define the differences between the sports leagues on both sides of the pond: scheduling and playoffs. In Europe, the league champion is the team that finishes in first place, whereas in America, the regular season is simply a vehicle to making the playoffs. So, while Europe relies on the marathon to determine its champion, America uses it as the qualifier for a sprint. That is the single biggest difference between the sports leagues on both continents, and the most significant reason why one seems to favor greatness and the other gives a nod to balance.
Due to labor disputes, there was no MLB champion in 1994 or NHL champion in 2005.
The English Premier League started in 1992; the Scottish Premier League started in 1998.
The Serie A’s 2004-2005 championship was rescinded from Juventus and left unassigned due to a match fixing scandal.
Another reason why sports leagues on each continent lean the way they do is because of league structure and scheduling. In most European soccer leagues, there is one top division in which all teams play a balanced schedule. This setup helps ensure that the best teams rise to the top. In U.S. leagues, however, there are several divisions that play significantly different schedules. As a result, the comparison between teams is usually apples to oranges. Because the United States is so much larger than European countries, the economic benefits of regionalized (i.e., division) play are obvious, but one outcome, whether intended or not, is greater competitive balance.
Whatever the reasons, there is unquestionably more concentration of both great players and championships among the elite teams in European soccer leagues. As a result, fans are treated to All-Star game like spectacles when these teams play (especially in the Champions’ League, which features the top teams from across Europe). However, much of the landscape of European soccer is reduced to a sideshow…one in which avoiding relegation (another major difference between European and U.S. sports leagues) often creates the most suspense. On the other hand, modern U.S. leagues spread out talent more evenly, a structure that often prevents fans from enjoying standards of excellence, but ensures a greater percentage maintain a legitimate rooting interest.
But, is the comparison really that simple?
Another flaw with Phillips’ analysis was lumping all American major sports leagues into one category (and I may be making a similar mistake by doing the same to all European soccer leagues), when in fact, they are all very different. In other words, not every American sports league is forced to rob Peter to pay Paul when it comes to straddling the line between greatness and competition.
Most Championships by One Team, Since 1990
Although it often gets knocked for being uncompetitive, baseball comes closest to perfecting the proper balance. Ironically, what many people perceive as baseball’s greatest weakness is actually its biggest advantage: the lack of a salary cap. Baseball has rules that attempt to constrain salaries, but the bottom line is a great team can choose to keep its roster intact, an option that simply doesn’t exist in the NHL, or even the NFL. However, because baseball requires around 18 regular contributors, the same level of talent concentration that you find in the NBA (or soccer) isn’t possible. What’s more, baseball has the six-year reserve clause, not to mention the minor league system, which helps teams accumulate, develop and maintain talent for an extended period of time. As a result, there isn’t the same level of turnover as in the NFL.
The 162-game schedule is another feather in baseball’s cap because it gives legitimacy to the sport’s regular season, especially because only eight teams make the playoffs (compared to 16 in the NBA and NHL and 12 in the NFL). As a result, fans can marvel at the fantastic play of a dynastic team, while also enjoying the competitiveness and uncertainty fostered by the postseason (i.e., when Manchester United runs away with the Premier League all suspense is lost, but when the Yankees ran away with the 1998 American League East, they still had to win three rounds of playoffs).
Although people complain about the talent heavy rosters (and corresponding payrolls) of the Yankees, Red Sox and now the Phillies, the fact remains that these teams attract immense interest. At the same time, however, most other teams in the league are not prohibited from competing for a championship because of these behemoths. Lots of people shed tears for the Pirates and Royals, for example, but the path to their division title doesn’t include a major power house as an obstacle.
In just about every respect, major league baseball is enjoying great success. It has increasing popularity, exploding revenue, expanding distribution, and unprecedented labor peace. Whether intentional or not, Bud Selig has guided the sport toward to a place where its fans get to enjoy the best of both words. Hopefully, he keeps that in mind before enacting any changes that negatively alter this balance. Baseball has parity and it has greatness. Let’s hope it stays that way.