Death of Dominance, and the Rise of Parity in Professional Sports

Parity in Professional Sports

In football, seldom has the best team in the regular season hoisted the Vince Lombardi trophy at the end of the year.  Through just a little research, I found that this is the norm across almost every sport that has a playoff format – NFL, MLB, NHL and NBA.  The English Premier League, for example, and most other soccer leagues around the world do not have a playoff system for determining its domestic winner.  Instead, the team with the most points at the end of the regular season is declared the winner.  Before we open discussion about the relevancy of a playoff system, and subsequent articles regarding the efficacy of promoting either “Pro-dynasty/Pro-dominance” or “Pro-parity”, let’s first get a handle on how much change there has been in who has won the various league championships.  For this, we have compared championship winners from the 1980’s versus the last ten years. Has there been a rise of parity in professional sports?

Here is a table showing each sport’s winner, along with the position in which they finished the regular season in their respective conferences, over the last 10 years:

NFL / seed MLB / seed NHL / seed NBA / seed
2003 Tampa /2 Florida /4 New Jersey /2  San Antonio /1
2004 New England/1 Boston /4 Tampa Bay /1  Detroit /3
2005 New England/2 Chi White Sox /1  —————-  San Antonio /2
2006 Pittsburgh/6 St.Louis /3 Carolina /2 Miami /2
2007 Indianapolis/ 3 Boston /1 Anaheim /2  San Antonio /3
2008 NY Giants /5 Philadelphia /2 Detroit /1  Boston /1
2009 Pittsburgh /2 NY Yankees /1 Pittsburgh /4  LA Lakers /1
2010 New Orleans /1 San Francisco/2 Chicago /2  LA Lakers /1
2011 Green Bay/6 St.Louis /4 Boston /3 Dallas /3
2012 NY Giants /4  ?  6 or 8 seed?  ?


Here is a table showing each sport’s winner, along with position in which they finished the regular season in their respective conferences, from 1980-1989:

1980  Pittsburgh /2  Philadelphia /2  NY Islanders /2  LA Lakers /1
1981 *split-season (strike)  Oakland /4 * Los Angeles /2  NY Islanders /1  Boston /T1
1982  San Francisco /1  St. Louis /1  NY Islanders/1  LA Lakers /1
1983  Washington/1  Baltimore /2  NY Islanders /1  Philadelphia /1
1984  Los Angeles/1  Detroit /1  Edmonton /1  Boston /1
1985  San Fran /1  Kansas City /2  Edmonton /1  LA Lakers /1
1986  Chicago /1  NY Mets /1  Montreal /5  Boston /1
1987  NY Giants /1  Minnesota /2  Edmonton /1  LA Lakers /1
1988  Washington/3  Los Angeles /2  Edmonton /2  LA Lakers /1
1989  San Fran /2  Oakland /1  Calgary /1  Detroit /1


The Rise of Parity in Professional Sports; The Death of Dominance

NFL Analysis

With the exception of Oakland in 1981, there were very few upsets in which team won the Superbowl between 1980 – 1989. Even then, the Raiders in 1981 were still a good team, despite being the first wildcard team to win the Superbowl.  Only a couple of years before, the league expanded, and the playoffs allowed for one extra wildcard team, for which the Raiders are very thankful.  It was the only time a non-division winner won the championship through the decade.

Over the past ten years, the Superbowl was won four times by a team that did not finish as a division-winner, including two number-six seeds (Green Bay and Pittsburgh) who barely squeaked into the playoffs.  Of course those teams were very good, though.  They say defence wins championships, which couldn’t be more true in Pittsburgh’s case.  And if you recall, Green Bay started their Superbowl-winning season off horribly, but rallied to make the playoffs.  Without a doubt, Aaron Rogers was coming into his own, and the Pack were far from a sixth-seed team.

Further, in the last ten years only two number-one seeds have won the Superbowl – New Orleans in 2010, and the Pats in 2004.  Compare that with 80’s where six Superbowls were won by top seeds.

I suppose times have changed in the NFL, as 12 teams have a realistic shot at winning the Superbowl.

MLB Analysis

Baseball is a little different, because through the 80’s, only the pennant-winners had the right to play for the World Series.  Therefore, every championship was won by a #1 or #2 seed, obviously.  We will discuss the pros and cons of having such a shortened playoff structure in our follow-up articles.

Compare the 80’s with the last ten years and there are some glaring differences.  With the expansion of the playoffs to include three division winners plus a wildcard, there are now eight teams vying to make the World Series, four from each league.  In the last nine years (2012 is still undecided) the World Series was won by a team that finished as either number-three or four seed.  Had the expansion not have happened, these teams obviously would not have had the chance to play.  Further, only three times has the best team through the regular season hoisted the trophy at the end of the year.

NHL Analysis

After looking at the table above, one would think the NHL has a decent history of the best teams winning the Stanley Cup.  However, when compared with the 1980’s my opinion changed.  Through the 80’s, the Cup was hoisted by the number-one seed seven times.  It was also dominated by the dynasties of New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers, with a spattering of other winners here and there.  Even the Flames, who won in 1989, were the best regular season team.  Basically, the best team in the regular season, won.

The same cannot be said of the years since 2003.  Only twice did a top-seed win the Stanley Cup – Detroit and Tampa Bay.  This year, 2012, the Stanley Cup is being played between a sixth and eight seed.  Further, there is not a single repeat winner over the past 10 years, unless the New Jersey Devils come back to defeat the Los Angeles Kings.  Compare that with the dominance of the Isles in the early 80’s, and the Oilers in the mid-late 80’s. Why have dynasties gone by the wayside in hockey (see below).

NBA Analysis

Staistically, the NBA has changed the least.  Through the 80’s, which obviously dominated by the Lakers, Celtics, and to a lesser extent the Sixers, in every case the NBA Championship went to the number-1 seed.  When compared to the winners over the last 10 years, for the most part, not much has changed.  Six NBA titles were won by one of the two top seeds.  Further, there hasn’t been a seed lower than third win the NBA Championships.

We will go into greater depth in the next article, which will examine the “pros” of dynasties and dominance, for which basketball had two in the 80’s – the Lakers and Celtics.  Whether you were a basketball fan or not, Magic-Bird (and Kareem) was just something you knew about.  The star players, on the best teams.  The teams that were the best in the regular season won the title.  They were the most talented, the deepest, and in every case, they celebrated a championship at the end of the season.

We can debate whether or not there were any dynasties over the last ten years, but it’s hard to argue with the dominant Lakers teams in the early 2000’s (2000-2002, 2009, 2010), and the San Antonio Spurs (2003, 2005, 2007).  These two franchises have dominated the hardwood, carrying on the tradition of the aforementioned Lakers and Celtics of the 80’s, and the Chicago Bulls of the 90’s.

The NBA has changed very little in that there have been dynasties consistently from the early 80’s through today.  In fact, one can argue that we might be on the cusp of another in the Miami Heat (at least they appear destined on paper).  Why hasn’t there been much change?  Perhaps it is because of the relatively small roster and the fact that it is by far the sport that can be dominated by the fewest number of players.  Not to say they don’t need a supporting cast, it’s just that two players can have a much more profound outcome on the game than in any other sport.  For proof, just look at some of the dynasties and their duos that ran the show – Magic/Kareem, Jordan/Pippen, Shaq/Kobe and Duncan/Robinson (for their 1999 and 2003 wins).


What are the Reasons for the Change?

  • Free Agency has created a system where you cannot accumulate too much talent on any one team.  Once players win, they want to get paid, which raises the team’s salary and key pieces move to other clubs.  For a perfect example, take a look at the Chicago Blackhawks in the off-season following their Stanley Cup win.  They were able to keep many of their star players, but role players who were so essential in their win, were ready to be paid accordingly.  The problem was that the salary cap didn’t afford this for the team.  Salary caps and luxury taxes have caused a greater dispersion of talent.
  • We also have better coaching than ever.  Technology, and increased video review and preparation have caused “over-coaching”.  The use of defence-heavy systems in hockey and basketball allow teams with less talent compete on the ice and on the court against teams with better talent (on paper).  Sports have become much more technical.
  • Better scouting and teams spending more on player development, nutrition, training and other off-field aspects have taken away some of the advantages that were around before.  While there will always be teams who are run better than others, the gaps were wider before.
  • Expansion has helped to spread the talent to more and more teams and reduced the ability of any one team to load up on talent.

So is this era of parity good for professional sports fans?

There are two schools of thought; Pro-parity, and Pro-dynasty/Pro-dominance.  For Mike’s explanation of Pro-Dynasty, please check back tomorrow.  For Ben’s Pro-Parity discussion, check back on Monday.  Both will be published at 6am.  As always, please feel free to share your thoughts in the comment box below.