Wednesday, November 24, 2010

All things being equal

By Graeme Perrow

When fans discuss a league for a period of time, something that inevitably comes up is parity. This seems to be the goal of any league – the idea that all of the teams in the league are similar enough talent-wise that it's highly possible for any team to beat any other team on any given night. This also implies that any team has a reasonable shot at winning a championship. The idea certainly has merit. If you're a fan, you know that the chances of your team winning it all or at least being competitive are pretty good.

But if you listen to Bob McCown, one of Canada's most knowledgeable sports broadcasters (both loved and despised by many), he'll tell you point blank that parity is the worst thing that could possibly happen to a league. When you look back over the history of pro sports in North America, what kinds of team-related things do you remember? The Yankees' dominance in the 50's, the Islanders in the early 80's and the Oilers immediately after that, the Red Wings in the late 90's, and the Rock of the late 90's/early 2000's. Do you look back fondly on the years of parity? Do you even know when they occurred? No, you don't. You remember the dynasties.

With the dynasties come the, well, anti-dynasties, I suppose. We also remember the teams that were really bad for long periods of time – the Senators of the mid-90s, the lowly Nordiques before Eric Lindros turned them into the powerhouse Avalanche, the Maple Leafs for most of the last 40 years, and the Clippers, Pirates, and Cubs seemingly forever. Again, do you remember the years when all the teams were pretty good, but nobody was awesome and nobody was terrible?

So parity isn't so good for the history books, but is it good for the fans? That depends. I've been a Maple Leafs fan all my life, and apart from a few good years in the 80's and a few more in the 90's, they've been mediocre at best for the majority of that time, and downright awful for quite a bit of it. A little parity sounds like a pretty damned good idea there. The Jays were terrible from 1977 until about 1984, then good for the rest of the 80's, awesome in the early 90's, then dropped off and have been no better than pretty good for the last fifteen years. The Raptors were terrible for a while, then pretty good for a few years, and now they're terrible again. The aforementioned Cup-winning Islanders and Oilers are both pretty bad these days. It's a terrible feeling watching your favourite team lose, and know that they're going to have a lousy season and are not likely to improve for at least a couple of years. That feeling is made even worse knowing that some other teams are likely to be awesome for that entire period. I'm sure parity would be welcome to fans of those teams as well.

But I've also lived the other side of the equation, thanks to the NLL. I became a Rock fan in 2001, when they had already won two championships. The total number of home games they lost was in single digits for several years. In their first seven seasons, they won five championships and lost a total of two playoff games. The Wings stole the 2001 championship away (don't get me wrong, they earned that victory), but the Rock stormed back and won the next three of the next four. I can tell you that parity in the NLL was the last thing that Rock fans wanted around 2005.

So for the fans the conclusion is hardly surprising – when your team is winning, parity is something you want to avoid. When your team is losing, parity is something to strive for. How about for the league as a whole?

Obviously most leagues think that parity is ideal. They want fans from all of their teams to continue to pay money to come out to the games as much as possible. This is easier when all the games are meaningful because each team still has a chance to make the playoffs and win it all. This is at least part of the reason we have salary caps and luxury taxes and such, so that some teams can't outspend the rest of the teams by 200% and buy themselves a stacked team. Of course that wouldn't happen in a league without a salary cap, would it? Well, the pre-cap Toronto Maple Leafs and New York Rangers tried it for a number of years, but just ended up with some very expensive losing teams. But this strategy has worked very well for the New York Yankees, and has made the Yankees one of the most hated teams in all of North American sports, outside of New York anyway. It has also turned the Yankees into one of the biggest draws at MLB stadiums all over North America, and has made them one of the most valuable sports franchises in the world. And at the same time, MLB is doing very well financially, thank you very much, with no salary cap. Parity shmarity. How's that salary cap working for your owners, Mr. Bettman?

The NLL east has been pretty even for a couple of years. Only 2 games separated 2nd from 5th last year. In 2009, the top 3 teams had the same record 10-6 record, and in 2008, the top four were 10-6. The west has been kind of weird for a few years. Minnesota's 5-11 regular season record (.313) in 2010 is the second worst ever to make the playoffs in the NLL, and the third worst ever in any sport*. Calgary ran away with the west in 2009, and in 2008 San Jose and Colorado tied for the division lead with records just above .500.

In 2011, you've got a couple of strong teams (Washington and Boston) but nobody that's unbeatable. You've got some weak teams (Philly, Colorado, Minnesota), but nobody who's really terrible. And everybody else could easily find themselves in the playoffs or fighting for a spot. Could Washington repeat? Sure they could. It's way too early to say "dynasty", but they could easily be in the running again this year. But could I predict a Rush championship without looking like an idiot? Sure I could. Or the Blazers. Or the Rock. Or the Bandits. Could the Roughnecks win without Sanderson or Kelusky? Well, the Oilers won without Gretzky, so anything's possible.

* In the 1993 and 1994 NLL (called the MILL at the time) seasons, three different teams made the playoffs with 2-6 (.250) records. In the other major sports, only the 1952-53 Baltimore Bullets of the NBA were worse: 16-54 (.229). No NFL team has ever made the playoffs with a record under .500. In baseball, the 1981 KC Royals made the playoffs at 50-53 (.485), though that was a strike-shortened season. And my beloved Leafs made the playoffs in 1987-88 with a 21-49-10 record, which is .263 in wins (21 wins in 80 games) but ties screw things up. They got 52 out of a maximum of 160 points, which is .325.

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