On Sunday, the New England Patriots pulled a Kansas City Royals, grasping and clawing their way to an unbelievable come-from-behind last-minute victory in an elimination game. It was truly amazing football, and the type of game that becomes an instant classic. Say it with me, all: Tom Brady is the best quarterback of all time, and there are no other challengers to the throne. None.
But around the start of NFL playoffs, which start in January, we hear about how great the NFL is and how much ‘parity’ its teams have. Parity is a weird word, one that we only use in a particularly specific context, like ‘inclement’ or ‘antidisestablishmentarianism.’ According to good ol’ Merriam-Webster, parity (plural plarities) is “the quality or state of being equal or equivalent.” In a sports context, this means that a league has parity if its teams have roughly equal shot at winning.
People think the NFL has parity. This is flatly untrue, and we’ll get to why in a second. The reason why this is a perpetrated myth is that the NFL is extremely volatile, which is similar at first glance but ultimately very different. There are a lot of moving parts in the NFL and it is a quick-moving league, so wild swings in performance from game-to-game and year-to-year are pretty common. That is not parity or fairness.
In the last 16 years, the AFC champion has featured either Brady, Peyton Manning, or Ben Roethlisberger 14 times. That’s way too high of a coincidence. On the NFC side, we see a similar occurrence, as the winning quarterbacks from the last decade include one Hall of Famer (Kurt Warner), three future Hall of Famers (Eli Manning, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees), two league MVP winners whose Hall of Fame status is too young to be determined (Cam Newton, Matt Ryan), and a player on a definitive Hall of Fame track (Russell Wilson).
See, the recipe for success in the NFL is one of two things, and one of two things only: ride a franchise quarterback to victory, or ride an ultra-elite defense to victory. There are no other options. If, by some chance you get to the Big Dance without one of those two things, your team is a fluke.
And if the NFL is like this, the NBA is even worse. With fewer players on the court at a given time, that allows a superstar to exert an unbalanced influence on the rest of the team. In the past 20 years, there have been four times where a team made three NBA Finals in a row. Look at the standings now—if the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers hold their top seeds and make it to the finals this year, we’re looking at six separate instances where a team made three straight NBA Finals in a two-decade period. That is not fair. Like the NFL, you’ve got to get a superstar or build a defensively elite team—or, preferably, both—in order to win.
Major League Baseball doesn’t have a salary cap, allowing large teams to spend orders of magnitude more money than smaller teams. This is true. But the modern game and playoff structure of baseball create the fairest of the major American sports.
Don’t believe me? In the 21st Century, not a single team has won two World Series in a row. Furthermore, no team has even made more than two World Series in a row and, oh yeah, only four teams have done that. The thing that boggles the most minds is that, in the last four years, we have seen seven different teams in the World Series. A full third of the league has made the World Series since 2009, and a full third of the league has won the World Series since 2002.
In baseball, if you can get to the postseason, you can dance with the best of them. Building an elite team that lasts is skewed towards the larger markets, sure, but all you need to win a World Series is a good team, a playoff berth, and a little postseason magic.
That seems pretty fair to me.