Thursday, February 9, 2012

Let's Talk About Parity, in Baseball and in Football

In all the years he did his "Baseball and Football" routine, the late great George Carlin never mentioned what Bill Maher once did: In baseball, rich men who donate to conservative political candidates use capitalism to make themselves money; in football, rich men who donate to conservative political candidates use socialism to make themselves even more money.

It's true: Revenue sharing and a salary cap gives every NFL team, at least in theory, an equal chance, and they make more money than baseball owners do.

People who prefer the NFL to MLB like to talk about "parity": The Green Bay Packers and other "small-market" teams have a chance in the NFL, while the Kansas City Royals and Pittsburgh Pirates have "no chance" to make the baseball Playoffs.


No. Not really.


This past Friday, before the Super Bowl, Tom Verducci made the point in the online version of Sports Illustrated:

One of the great myths about the NFL is that the salary cap affords the league much better competitive balance than is possible in the cap-less Major League Baseball.

This would not be a good week to be promoting that myth, seeing that the New York Giants and New England Patriots have become what Meryl Streep and George Clooney are to the Oscars. Ho-hum. The Giants and Patriots have filled one-third of the available spots over the past 12 Super Bowls.

In baseball, the prevailing thought is that the Yankees, Phillies and Red Sox spend their way to dominance while the "even playing field" of the NFL gives more teams a pathway to compete for the championship. It's simply not true. And it's not true whether you go back a decade, or all the way back to 1995 (the last time baseball expanded the postseason) or even all the way back to 1970 (the year of the NFL-AFL merger).

Take a look at how many franchises reached the Super Bowl and reached the World Series according to those timelines. What you find is that despite very different economic systems, there is no discernable difference in parity when it comes to playing for the championship in each sport.

What about teams that won the Super Bowl or World Series? Again, you won't find a noticeable difference in the spread of championships. Since 1995, 10 franchises have won the World Series, including four that have done so more than once. In that same period, 11 franchises have won the Super Bowl, including four that have done so more than once.

So go ahead and complain all you want about baseball's economic system. It has its flaws, including the gap in payroll disparity. But when it comes to getting teams through to the championship round, it is no different than the hallowed system in the NFL.

Verducci is right. Of the NFL's 32 teams, 28 have made the postseason in the last 5 seasons. Baseball? 19 out of 30. Sounds like a good argument for the NFL and against MLB, right?

Except that in MLB, only the top 8 teams make it, not the top 12 as in the NFL. How many NFL teams have made the last 8 in the last 5 seasons? 22 out of 32 –- 68 percent, not a whole lot better than MLB's 19 out of 30, or 63 percent.

From October 1996 onward, of the 32 available World Series places, 18 teams have won at least one. That's the exact same number of NFL teams that have advanced to the Super Bowl over the same stretch.

The Giants won this week's Super Bowl with a 9-7 regular-season record. This past October's World Series? Won by the St. Louis Cardinals, whose record was 90-72, proportionally almost exactly the same.

Yes, it's true: The NFL's revenue-sharing – all those big Republican donors boosting their capitalism by mixing in a significant amount of socialism – allows the Green Bay Packers, whose "metropolitan area" has just 300,000 people, whose entire State of Wisconsin (including Milwaukee) has 5.7 million people, can compete on an even keel with the New York Giants and Jets, whose metro area has 22 million – well, 11 million, if you believe that it' divided equally between Big Blue and Gang Green. (Stop laughing.)

And it is true that, in the last 21 revolutions of the Earth around the Sun, New York and Green Bay have won the exact same number of Super Bowls: 2. So has the "small market" of Pittsburgh, 2.3 million. (Again, these figures are for the entire metropolitan area, not just within the city limits.)

But look at baseball. Over that same stretch, 2 World Series have been won by St. Louis, 2.8 million. Two by Miami, 5.5 million. One by Minneapolis, 3.3 million. One by Atlanta, 5.2 million. And except for Miami, those metro areas have been in the Playoffs more often than not through most of the last 10 years.

Cincinnati, with 1.5 million, made the Playoffs in 2010. Denver, with 3.9 million, won a Pennant in 2007. Cleveland, with 2.2 million, nearly did so that same season. Detroit, with 4.3 million, won a Pennant in 2006 and has made the postseason twice more since then. Milwaukee, with 1.7 million (not including Green Bay), has now made the Playoffs twice in the last 4 years.

True, there are "small markets" such as Kansas City, which hasn't reached baseball's postseason since 1985; Pittsburgh, not since 1992; and Toronto, not since 1993. But there are other factors at work: Toronto has to deal with the U.S./Canadian exchange rate and Canadian taxes (2 big reasons why there's no longer an MLB team in Montreal), and the other 2 have cheap owners who are fabulously wealthy, but don't seem to get that, with all of the chances at exposure and merchandising in today's sports, there really is no such thing as a “small market” anymore.

And let's not forget: The Kansas City Chiefs, owned by Clark Hunt, son of team and & AFL founder Lamar Hunt, grandson of billionaire oil baron H.L. Hunt, have made the Playoffs in only 1 of the last 5 seasons and 3 of the last 14. So how have revenue sharing and the salary cap helped the football team in the city most often cited as having "no chance" in baseball?

Every Major League Baseball team has a chance to reach the postseason. Some have better chances than others. Some make the most of their chances, and succeed. Some make the most of their chances, and fail – but at least they try. Some see their chances, and choose not to try.

That's the biggest difference between MLB and the NFL: In MLB, greed inspires owners to keep their place; in the NFL, greed inspires owners to make their place greater.

It's about men, and how they use the methods available to them.

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