The Importance of Parity in the Professional Sports
How it benefits the owners, the athletes, and the fans
Growing up as a diehard NBA basketball fan, I can quickly name for you the five best players of my childhood: Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Magic Johnson. These players accounted for 60 All Star appearances, or 78% of the total years they played in the league. These players were on five different teams across the league, and created for a league filled with "competitive parity."Growing up as a diehard NBA basketball fan, I can quickly name for you the five best players of my childhood: Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing, Karl Malone, David Robinson, and Magic Johnson. These players accounted for 60 All Star appearances, or 78% of the total years they played in the league. These players were on five different teams across the league, and created for a league filled with “competitive parity.”
Today, I can also name for you five of the best players in the league: Lebron James, Dwayne Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, and Carmelo Anthony. These players, while in the midst of their careers, have already accounted for 30 all-star appearances, or 74% of the total years they played in the league. While they seem to be going to the all-star game at approximately the same rate as the five players I named from my childhood, they only represent two teams, creating a league filled with “competitive disparity.”
While some may people believe a competitively disparate model for the NBA works (especially if you are a Heat fan), I do not believe this is the case. The NFL is a league boasting competitive parity, and is by most standards the most successful league in North America. As a member of the media who covers the NBA and is well connected with the fans, I believe that a league with competitive parity benefits everyone: It creates a better product for fans, benefits players who want to create a personal brand for themselves (despite common belief) and as shown by the NFL, will ultimately put more money in the owner’s pocket.
According to many members of the media, the NFL is the league that exemplifies the most competitive parity. I’m not going to explain with much detail why this is, but will show you through a quick analysis of the NFC South this past decade, parity is clear. From 2003 to 2010, every team followed the “Worst to First” notion, meaning that if they finished in last place in their division, they came in first place in their division the following year. This very quickly shows how there is competitive parity in this league, and how bad teams become competitive very quickly. The reasoning for this is not certain, but many believe this is due to the NFL’s unique Revenue Sharing System. That is, all of the revenue each NFL team brings in gets pooled together, and divided up equally in 30 directions. As a result, each team has the same amount of money to spend on talent.
Looking from a profitable standpoint, the NFL blew every other league out of the water, bringing in $984MM in profit (after paying all expenses) in 2009. In comparison, the MLB brought in $496MM, and the NBA brought in $207MM. On top of that, the TV ratings for the Super Bowl were record high in 2011, bringing in 111MM viewers, in comparison to game 7 of the 2010 NBA finals, which brought in 24MM viewers (the most since 1998 when 72MM fans watched) Since fans do drive all of the profit and TV ratings in sports, it is pretty likely that NFL has gained the most fandom.
Another way to look at this is that fans like a league with competitive parity. The NBA, which has recently dealt with many all-star players changing rosters, is a league that has become more and more competitively disparate over the past decade. With recent moves like Lebron James and “taking his talents to South Beach,” he helped the Miami Heat join the upper tier ranks of the NBA. On the other hand, this move has left his old team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, in the dust, as they finished with the worst record in the NBA this past season. On top of that, NBA Fans have shown their hatred towards Lebron James and has made the Miami Heat one of the most hated sports teams of all time. According to a Sports Illustrated, 55% of NBA fans believe the current trend of star players leaving smaller-market teams for bigger market teams is bad for the sport.
More importantly, fans of mid market teams are losing their interest in basketball, because these teams are unable to stay competitive due to their all-star talent consistently leaving. According to ESPN, once Lebron James left Cleveland, ticket sales decreased dramatically over the course of 2010. Other teams like the Utah Jazz who lost all-star point guard Deron Williams because of their inability to afford him in the future will start to see interest in their team decrease if they develop in parallel with the Cavs.
A revenue sharing league could prevent this from happening, but players still may want to leave in order to “Build their Brand.” While many players believe that they have to be in New York, Miami, or Los Angeles in order to make themselves more attractive for sponsorship deals, this is a common misconception. Currently, the players believe that they will have more exposure by being in a major market, but with games and NBA highlights being nationally televised on a daily basis, a highly developed NBA on Demand System, and videos and blogs online, players can easily maintain as much exposure through being in a small market as if they were in a large market. Players can heard through the social media, like FaceBook and Twitter, in order to build up their fan perception and marketability. On top of that, playing for mid market teams creates local marketing opportunities that would not be present if they were playing in a large market. Another misconception is that NBA players need to be in a big market in order to land lucrative sponsorship deals with companies like Nike and Adidas. This is not true, in fact Nike is headquartered in Oregon, and Adidas’ American operation is headquartered in Indianapolis, both of which are small sports markets.
So as I have shown you through the NFL, competitive parity is advantageous in creating fan interest, creating more profit for NFL team owners while not affecting a player’s marketability. Obviously, creating a league with more parity cannot be done over night, but there is a solution. After these playoffs, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement expires, and in turn owners and players will be able to negotiate for new rules. In turn, the owners should try to negotiate for revenue sharing, as revenue sharing will help create a better product for the whole league. And maybe in ten years, who knows, maybe the NBA will gain supremacy over the NFL.