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Parity: What Is It And How Much Is Right? (Part 4)

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This is the last installment of the series on parity. In Part 1 we divided parity into three different types and calculated Franchise Parity. Part 2 was dedicated to Season Parity and Part 3 to Game Parity. In this one I'm just going to wrap up by putting the numbers together and evaluating how the leagues, and in particular MLS, do at creating and managing parity.

The Parity Scoreboard

Franchise Parity Rank Season Parity Rank Game Parity Rank Avg Parity Rank
MLS 0.904 1 0.544 1 0.603 2 0.684 1
MLB 0.438 3 0.346 4 0.702 1 0.495 2
NFL 0.614 2 0.457 2 0.156 5 0.409 3
NBA 0.315 4 0.354 3 0.254 4 0.308 4
EPL 0.156 5 0.054 5 0.318 3 0.176 5

I wouldn't put too much focus on the total average. While the parity values all use the same scale and range and so can be reasonably averaged together, they use different methodologies and it's not obvious that they have equivalent value. So it's better to focus on the individual values. But if you want a topline number just to summarize the parity situation, that total average is decent enough.

So. . How Much Is Right?

Eagle-eyed readers will have noticed that there are two questions in the title of this series. I think we've done a pretty good job on the 'what is it' half, but we haven't really answered the 'how much is right' half. That's because it's a subjective question. Parity represents a balance between justice and opportunity, or predictability and chaos, or dominance and competitiveness. If you want more of one, you have to sacrifice the other, and deciding where that line should fall is a matter of taste.

The Seahawks recent results are an excellent example of that. The NFL enhances parity (and therefore opportunity, chaos, and competitiveness) by using small divisions, so that a team only has to beat its three division rivals to make the playoffs. This left a number of 'deserving' teams with substantially better records (and honestly, rosters) than Seattle outside the playoffs while the Seahawks squeaked out wins against terrible division opponents and earned the division. Obviously Seattle fans will be biased in favor of whatever gets the Seahawks into the playoffs, but even if it were some other team, I still would have been for it. In a sport with as much Game Parity as football, I like more churn in playoff teams, since only very good teams are still likely to make the Superbowl regardless. But others fairly thought it was a complete travesty that the likes of the 10-6 Giants and Buccaneers were left out. There's no right answer to the question, though there are extremes that almost any sports fan will agree are either 'too much' or 'too little' parity.

The Leagues

I'll do a quick review of the leagues and their parity situation in order of increasing parity, since that will conveniently leave the MLS for last and the MLS is our focus here.

The EPL

During the course of the series the EPL has been getting low scores across all of the parity measures, especially in the Franchise and Season measures, and I'd gotten some comments (both in the the threads and elsewhere) that equated this with a suggestion that the EPL is somehow a bad league. Keep in mind that we're only measuring parity here, and parity isn't everything. The EPL has almost none of it (except some Game Parity, which is dictated by the low-scoring nature of soccer) and yet is a tremendously successful league. It has a deep fan base with a rich history in a country that loves the sport above all others. It has some of the best players and best coaches in the world and on any given matchday can be a venue for the very best the sport has to offer.

But could it be enhanced with some parity? It seems so. The most telling criticism of the EPL (at least when it comes to competitiveness) is that the top of the table is private party, open only to a handful of clubs who have the revenue or the deep-pocketed owners to outspend the rest of the league by 10 to 1. Last week none other than Arsene Wenger suggested a transfer cap might create a more true test of a team (though the headlines like 'Wenger Suggests Salary Cap' were way overblown).

The NBA

The NBA is the American sports league most suffering from a lack of parity. While the NFL and MLB have various high and low scores among the values, the NBA is just consistently poor. Despite a pretty firm salary cap and an amateur draft with more significance than any other in American sports (in the sense that a high draft pick will contribute immediately and a single player can have more impact than in any other major sport) it has the worst Franchise Parity among the American leagues, meaning that bad teams stay consistently bad. A more thorough exploration of why exactly the cap and draft can't make bad teams good would be an interesting project for those more NBA-inclined. I think the guaranteed contract might be a plausibly significant factor. A team buried under the weight of a bad player taking up a large amount of cap space will find it almost impossible to move that player and will in effect be playing with a smaller cap for many seasons in a row.

Meanwhile the low Game Parity means that fans of lesser teams have little hope of seeing an upset. And the low Game Parity calls for a shorter season to maintain Season Parity, but instead the 82-game season and the very large number of teams making the playoffs reduces Season Parity by creating a class of teams with playoff tickets booked well before the end of the season. I've been exploring some calculations to try to find out the 'ideal' season length for parity purposes — that is, the season that's just long enough to overcome the game parity by ensuring that the standings are actually in order of the best teams (and not just the luckiest ones). But in the meantime I'm pretty confident that the NBA season is Too Long for parity purposes, although I'm sure it's working well for revenue purposes.

The NFL

It's a little surprising that the Gold Standard of Parity isn't second on the list (to MLS, more on which later), but that's just because the NFL's Game Parity is so low it drives the average down. As I've written before, Game Parity isn't something you fix so much as something you work around, and the NFL has worked around its well. The season is short, which prevents losing seasons from becoming too tedious, and the Franchise Parity is very high, which ensures that even a losing team suffering through a tedious season has hope for next season. And high League Parity is maintained with small divisions, which we learned this year means that a losing team might even hope to make the playoffs anyway (and knock off the defending Super Bowl champs. Hah! Take that, Game Parity).

How's Franchise Parity kept so high? Well, like the NBA the NFL has an amateur draft (though not as consequential as the NBA's, except maybe with top-3 quarterbacks) and a salary cap. But the NFL doesn't have guaranteed contracts, and as we mentioned in the NBA section, maybe the ability of a losing franchise to cut bait on a contract that isn't working is what frees up NFL franchises to recover quickly. Also, the NFL seems to be a league driven as much by coaching talent as playing talent. While an MLB manager might call the occasional hit and run or make a couple of pitching substitutions during a game, an NFL coaching staff is designing and calling every play on the field, and football is won with plays. So a poor franchise can get dramatically better without turning over its entire roster, which is a slow and expensive process in the NFL or NBA. Instead, it can bring in a dramatically better coach for only a few million more and reap immediate rewards.

MLB

Baseball lives off of its Game Parity. While criticism has been ongoing for decades now about the exploding payrolls of some of the top clubs (particularly the Yankees) and its effect on competitive balance, the easy response has been 'hey, the Yankees haven't won the Series since (insert year)' or 'hey, the Yankees didn't even make the playoffs in (insert year)'. But this ignores the fact that baseball's Game Parity means that even the most expensive team of All-Stars ever assembled (which is pretty much the Yankees roster every season) is going to lose a lot of games. And if you lose enough or lose them at the right time (like in the playoffs), you don't win the championship. And so baseball has a pretty healthy rotating cast of World Series champions, not because of any decent amount of Franchise Parity, but because in baseball the ball bounces all over the place in funny ways, and sometimes it bounces for your team.

But to argue that money 'doesn't matter' in some way is to argue that George Steinbrenner was and John W. Henry is one of the stupidest men on the planet, since they are (or their sons are, in the Steinbrenner case) outspending their rivals by hundreds of millions of dollars every season on something that presumably 'doesn't matter'. Of course it matters. It's not all that matters. You can't pay a foul ball to hit the pole and turn into a home run instead. Those things matter a lot. But pay enough and your players will consistently get good enough results to give them a shot every season. Just ask the Pirates whether it matters.

MLB also suffers from a lack of League Parity. While there are always divisional and wild card races that come down to the last few games of the season to keep things interesting, that excitement papers over the fact that a huge proportion of teams are eliminated from playoff contention well before the end of the season — sometimes months in advance. This has created the annual ritual of the trade deadline, in which the large number of teams that know they're out of the playoffs two-thirds of the way through the season trade away their best veteran players to contending teams in exchange for prospects who might help in future years. The easiest solution to low Season Parity would be to add more playoff teams in a league that sends the lowest proportion of any of the other major US leagues, and in fact it looks like this will happen, since Selig announced recently that they're looking at adding more wild card teams. We'll be looking forward to seeing how this affects League Parity.

MLS

So back to MLS. Before the advent of Major League Soccer, you could have reasonably argued that the more parity the better. After all, the league regarded as having the highest parity — the NFL — seemed to be rewarded for it with high fan interest and high revenue. But I think what we learned in the first years of MLS is that there is a limit to how much parity is a good thing, and we probably crossed it. The Franchise Parity value is shockingly high, suggesting (as we pointed out in the first installment) that season to season results are almost completely uncorrelated, meaning that a good team is just as likely to be a bad team next year as it is to have another good season. That seems inappropriate to anyone but the most ardent parity fans. And the League Parity value is also very high, meaning that nearly every team has a decent shot at making the playoffs.

That sounds great, until some of those lesser teams actually do make the playoffs. Because once you take into account the high Game Parity of soccer and the fact that postseason series in MLS are two games at most and one game at the most critical stages, the playoffs turn into a complete crapshoot. You can afford to let in a lot of playoff teams in a low Game Parity sport, as the NBA does, because those teams are almost certainly going to lose at some stage in the playoffs anyway, and your best franchises will survive to the late rounds. In a high Game Parity sport you either have to close off the playoffs to the elite few or use long playoff series to decide rounds (MLB does both, for example). Otherwise, your playoffs become essentially random. And in a league where the season to season results are already nearly random, making the playoffs a die roll among a pack of 8 teams is going to result in a lot of lesser teams winning championships.

It's a good season to be making this case, because the Colorado Rapids were by no stretch of the imagination the best team in MLS this season. They weren't terrible (having the 4th best GD in the league), but they were a step below the Western Conference's top three. And in a league that already suffers from constant comparison to its single-table playoff-free cousins across the Atlantic, it's a bit of an embarrassment that the last two championships were won by the teams ranked 7th and 8th in the table at the end of the season.

So what to do? Here are my recommendations to improve the parity situation in MLS:

  1. Relax some of the roster controls that lead to such extreme levels of Franchise Parity. Keep the cap in some form, but let on-field success breed success the next season to at least some degree. (In fact MLS is already moving this direction with increased numbers of DPs and home grown players, so that's good).
  2. Decrease the number of teams that make the playoffs. Reduces League Parity a bit, but ensures that the pool of playoff teams better represents the best of the league. (In fact it sounds like MLS will be increasing the number of playoff teams. Awesome).
  3. Increase the number of games in the playoff rounds. The league used to have 3-game series in the first two rounds of the playoffs, but moved to the current format of home-and-away in the first round and one game in the second round in 2003. I think that was a terrible move for parity purposes. The previous system still allowed for upsets (see the Quakes in 2001) but by and large it was the better teams advancing. I can't find any reasoning on why the change was made and I'd be interested in pointers if it's written up anywhere, but my guess is that it was a concession to soccer purists who weren't comfortable with a three-game series if it wasn't used on the Continent.
  4. Make up for the fewer playoff teams with divisional play. Yeah, yeah. Another thorn in the side of purists. But unbalanced schedules are happening anyway with travel costs in a country the size of the US, especially when clubs are paying for Reserve League travel as well. So go to four divisions instead of two, let the division winners make the playoffs (thus increasing League Parity with more, smaller playoff races) and add 2 wild cards for a total of 6 teams. That should be few enough that the playoffs are higher quality, but enough to preserve regular season excitement

So that's it. Comments, criticisms? Think the MLS should maintain current parity levels? Other suggestions for getting it right? Have at it.