Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Any Given Year, Any Given Team

This year's World Series was my worst-case scenario as a sports fan. I get bored when the same teams win all the time so a championship series between the all-time World Series leader and the defending champions is more or less a disaster. I am not a market analyst, of course, but for my own sense of aesthetic and fairness, I feel it is important to spread the wealth. If big market, big budget teams always win, I see little point in a league expanding to the point where the smaller fry stand no chance. Sports need occasional Cinderella stories to remain vital. I have many objections to the NBA but far from least among them is the fact that the league rarely has a championship series that doesn't feel scripted. Setting aside the question of whether or not parity is actually desirable, how does a league achieve it?

I feel the NFL's Any Given Sunday philosophy is a beautiful thing. The league certainly has its fair share of problems but I fully support all of its efforts to promote parity. Dynasties do exist but they don't last nearly as long as they have in other leagues. The 49ers, Steelers and Cowboys have all had strong runs in the Super Bowl era but nothing to compare with the Yankees in baseball, the Canadiens in hockey or the Celtics and Lakers in basketball.

On the other hand, maybe the European soccer leagues have the right idea. Drop all pretense of the weak teams posing any real threat to the perennial powers. If a team can't cut it in the top league, the whole club is relegated to the minors. In a given year, it means that every team has something substantive to play for late in the season: league title, qualification for the next year's European tournaments or mere survival.

And of course, there is the small matter of anti-trust law hanging over all of this. Professional sports leagues have long been seen as exempt from anti-trust obligations. I will admit there is some sense in this as the product they are selling is competition itself. So, to a point, I support any measures taken to preserve an equal playing field. It still doesn't sit well with me. I realize that collusion among NFL franchise owners doesn't present the same dangers as similar practices in the energy industry would but my democratic heart (small d) can't help feeling that any industry being allowed to thumb its nose at anti-trust sets a dangerous precedent. But then professional sports as anything beyond an exhibition doesn't work at all, does it? I can't win.

For baseball, I'd say a meaningful salary cap is a must. But before discussions of contraction ever come up again, I think they might consider a European style promotion/relegation system. Would the lesser teams take a hit? Most definitely. But in the long run, it might make for more meaningful seasons in the smaller markets. It will never happen, of course, but I'd certainly prefer it to seeing teams disappear entirely.

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