Parity in American Sports; or, How I Decided to Forget All Else and Watch Football

Football is America’s true pastime, let’s set that straight. But now that the NFL, the most popular form of football, is under fire for severe personnel issues, is that going to change? The easy answer is absolutely not. Even as other professional sports leagues are having great seasons, the NFL, and to a lesser extent college football, is still king and there’s one word to answer the question “why is that the case?”: parity.

9 different franchises have become the NBA champions since 1980, two of those franchises (the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks) have won once. That means that across 32 season, the same 7 teams won every title. In baseball, the comparison isn’t quite as meaningful considering dwindling attendance numbers and an (unfortunate) increase in disdain for the sport. It’s unfortunate, considering there are some amazing young stars in today’s game, but baseball is not nearly as popular as it once was, not even close (and the reason why is deserving of its own separate post). Basketball has been having some great post-seasons in the last few years and there is no shortage of star power in the NBA, and in college for that matter, but in this era of “Big Threes,” it is unlikely that we are going to see much parity any time soon. The Spurs, despite always appearing to be underdogs, have dominated for over a decade. The Cavaliers are just the new Miami Heat. It is highly unlikely that some up and coming, out of nowhere team is going to have a legitimate shot at the title. This is in stark contrast to the NFL.

The last team to repeat as Super Bowl champions was the New England Patriots in Super Bowls XXXVIII & XXXIX. Super Bowl XXXIX was played in 2005. Since then, there has not been a repeat champion. Two teams have won two titles in that time period, the New York Giants and Pittsburgh Steelers (who also lost another). Seven different winners in nine years. You don’t just have to look at the winners to prove league parity, however. Look at some of the division standings this season. The Colts are 1-2 after winning their division last year, while the Texans are 2-1, which is actually how they started last year before finishing 2-14, but they have looked better in their wins. In 2011, the Chicago Bears were starting Devin Hester and Johnny Knox at wide receiver; in 2013 they were the second best offense in the NFL. The Arizona Cardinals played in Super Bowl XLIII, then made the playoffs one season later as well. In the next three years, the Cardinals went a combined 18-30, with their best season being 8-8 in 2011. Last season the missed the playoffs with 10 wins. Currently, they are undefeated through three games and have been one of the most impressive teams across the NFL easily. The point is that from year to year, almost anything can happen and almost anyone has a shot at the playoffs and the championship.

Of course there are exceptions. The Green Bay Packers have been one of the most successful teams since the early 90’s and they have (mostly) sustained that success (although their highly-touted offense has looked fairly anemic so far this season). Pittsburgh has been to three Super Bowls since XL, but they have floundered near mediocrity of late. The Jacksonville Jaguars have not had a winning season since 2007. The Cleveland Browns are (perhaps unfairly) something of a laughing stock across all of American sports. But this is more of an exception than the norm. Even teams that are traditional powers have overcome the odds recently. The Packers were the second 6-seed ever to win a Super Bowl when they won Super Bowl XLV (the Steelers were the first just five years earlier). The Packers didn’t have a playoff berth clinched until the last week of the regular season. The Arizona Cardinals were 9-7 when they reached Super Bowl XLIII. Every single year a different team becomes a powerhouse, while a top-tier team falls off the face of the earth. This is something that, while it occurs across all sports, happens much more often in the NFL. The Spurs haven’t gone anywhere away from the top, the Heat didn’t go anywhere away from the top, but then you can look at the NFL and see that the winners of Super Bowl XLVII, the Baltimore Ravens, didn’t even make it to the playoffs last year. Parity is what makes the NFL king.

A hard salary cap that keeps spending approximately equal around the league. Star power. The feeling that even the worst team in the league can beat any other team on any given Sunday. That is what makes the NFL the most exciting and the most popular sports league in America. I love baseball but it has way too many issues it has to deal with right now, it won’t touch football for a long time, if ever again. The NBA is in an exciting yet almost predictable era, and with the soft cap and all of the exceptions involved, it isn’t nearly as effective as the NFL’s. League parity dominates all else. The sport is the most popular on its own, but the ability of any team to win any game is what makes the league far and away the best in the nation, if not the world. People have questioned the sustainability of the NFL after we’ve seen the Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, etc. incidents come to light. Frankly though, the American people are too invested in the game at this point, and as long as fans across the nation can believe that there team will win no matter what week it is, the NFL will continue to be insanely popular, much more so than any other professional sports league, quite a staunch difference to other sports that people tune out of because they just move too slowly or don’t play enough defense. The NFL is here to stay, and thanks to its incredibly parity, it probably won’t leave in our lifetime.


You can read more of my work on my other blog, Per audacia ad astra. You can also keep up me on Twitter.


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