The Myth of Baseball’s Enduring Lack of Parity

It is almost gospel as this point, according to the American sports media, that parity is in the possession of the NFL only, and that all other leagues are relics of a past that relied upon dynastic succession, large markets, and league history. The NBA hoists up the dynasties of the LA Lakers, Boston Celtics, Michael Jordan’s Bulls, etc… as much as they promote their current stars, and Major League Baseball is excoriated for its fascination with statistics, lack of a salary cap, large market success at the expense of more modest locales, and failure to create pop culture icons outside of Derek Jeter. Meanwhile, the NFL pushes that a large portion of its success is due to its parity, the idea that each year all teams are so evenly matched that anyone can win a title and thus draw in more fan bases and excitement.

However, is this true? Is it fair to claim that MLB’s competition and business model is some sort of dinosaur that is embarrassing in comparison to the NFL? Or is it more likely that baseball is holding up quite well but is a victim of the NFL’s media juggernaut and the sports media’s obsession with all things football with the consequence of under-covering other sports leagues?

The main argument, naturally, focuses on the amount of winning accomplished by a given team in terms of championships, but it is difficult to overlook the fact that since the 2000 season—a nice round number, and fifteen years seems like a good sample size, in each sport, the same number of franchises (nine) have won the World Series or Super Bowl title. Furthermore, the number of franchises represented in all title match-ups since 2000 is a virtually equivalent 17(NFL) and 16(MLB.)

Another gauge by which to measure parity, as generally defined by the sports media, is to take into account the competitiveness of a league’s franchises. It would be low hanging fruit for one to point out the decades-long failures of the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, as well as the until-recent languishing of franchises such as the Baltimore Orioles, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Kansas City Royals, but one must also consider the droughts and impotence of the NFL’s Bills, Lions, Browns, and Jaguars franchises. An enlightening statistic is that since 2000 each league has had all but one of their teams reach the playoffs, the Buffalo Bills of the NFL and the Toronto Blue Jays of the MLB. (A weird fact about the Blue Jays is that out of those 15 seasons they won at least 80 games ten times. The AL East division takes no prisoners.)

A salary cap is another feature lauded by fans and analysts alike as a tool that could improve the balance of teams in baseball so that market size is not such a key factor on a team’s success. However, haven’t the past fifteen years shown that it’s not the amount of money, but how a franchise spends it? The Rays jettisoned the Devil from their name, brought in new on and off-field management, developed players and used their comparatively meager resources wisely, thus shedding their also-ran label and becoming perennial contenders. The Twins, A’s, and Royals are all recent examples of this type of effective fiscal finagling (though I would like to point out that no World Series rings are shimmering in these stadiums). The game of baseball and the fate of its franchises are cyclical and dependent upon the efficacy of those in power. Did anyone five or six years ago ever think that the Nationals, the continuation of the Montreal Expos legacy, would be one of the top teams in baseball? The Nationals did not reach their current station due to built-in mechanisms to ensure parity; they made shrewd business and organizational decisions and used what resources they had in a sensible manner (with the exception of the Jayson Werth signing).

For context, consider that the Florida/Miami Marlins won two championships before the Curse of the Bambino was broken, and that the Mets are in the largest and the Cubs are in the third largest market, yet they are, and have been, embarrassments on the field and reckless with the money they spend. We’ve seen teams with $100 million payrolls in Seattle and Los Angeles fail to make the playoffs, and we’ve seen teams at the bottom of the barrel like the Pirates and A’s make their ways to the postseason with varying degrees of playoff success. The recent triumphs of the Dodgers, Yankees, Red Sox, Cardinals and Giants are nothing if not parallel to the NFL’s Patriots, Steelers, Colts, Packers and Eagles; for many years now, you could count on those teams being good and legitimate World Series/Super Bowl contenders, and each league accomplished this under a different financial model. The amount of money and location of a franchise does not foster parity; it is how and towards whom the money is spent by each franchise.

The notion of parity, in general, is not a bad concept for major sports leagues and fans to desire; it raises the specter of excitement and unpredictability to the games, and, as expressed previously, it keeps teams and their fan bases engaged for longer periods of the season, thus producing more revenue for the teams and leagues. However, parity is neither the birthright nor the exclusive property of the NFL; if anything Major League Baseball has received a negative and much undeserved reputation as a top-heavy, ruthless league which feasts upon the smaller markets and upstart teams and leaves very little doubt or excitement to the regular season. A Yankees-Red Sox or Dodgers-Giants playoff series is no different from Manning v. Brady or any scramble of NFC East match-ups. Both leagues are rife with parity in the middle and bottom, but it must be noted that cream rises to the top and we ought not to complain if it stays there a little longer than we’d like it to. Sooner or later the guy at the bottom is going to rise up and take his shot, be it the Seattle Seahawks or Kansas City Royals.

5 Responses

  1. pepper

    A salary cap enables the Pirates of the world the same chance to sign a big nane free agent as the Yankees or Dodgers. Doesn’t get much more fair than that. You can argue that parity is still in baseball without a cap, but the ability to keep your talent is limited for a small market team, making it harder for these teams to sustain their success

    • Kevin

      Free agency and salary caps are tricky due to the fact that there can be as many systemic safeguards as possible to ensure equality, but the human element in terms or coaching, money management, ownership, etc… is always present and is the crux of what can either create or prevent complete parity in a sport. A small market team like the Twins can offer their guy the farm, and they did with Mauer, but now they are handcuffed and not improving. Meanwhile the A’s developed and made Barry Zito an all-world pitcher but couldn’t afford to keep him. He has since become a Pavano-sized mess and the A’s spent the money saved elsewhere and wisely and have remained contenders. The salary cap argument is an overly simplistic take on the old saying that quantity is preferable to quality. It really does cut both ways in all sports leagues. In my opinion, MLB does not need a salary cap to foster parity.

  2. Joe Ruth

    Pirates… Russell Martin… Francisco Liriano… argument over.

    • rambo

      They’ll both be gone when their contracts are up. Argument on

      • Joe Ruth

        Exactly my point and we totally agree. Argument over. Hard to refute that budget isn’t important in baseball.

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