The Illusion Of The Pursuit Of Competitive Balance

My day started like usual.  Crawl out of bed, let the dogs out to do their business, grab a coffee and flip open the laptop to see what drama has been presented to us by the world of sports.  

Right on the front page of ESPN, I saw the St. Louis Cardinals going to the World Series (visit The Outside Corner for all your baseball needs).  And it got me to thinking (and tweeting) about how bad the ratings for a Cardinals, Texas Rangers World Series will be.  St. Louis is a great baseball city.  One of the best.  But we know damn well that Bud Selig and his network buddies are HATING the fact that no big-market powerhouse is around to drive up World Series ratings.  

Which brings me to the NBA.

When I argue about owners’ conduct during the NBA lockout, I will inevitably get hit with the “competitive balance” response.  It will go something like this: “these small market owners are fighting to fix a system that favors big markets.”  I don’t happen to believe that’s true.  I think small market owners are fighting to make money, and if their team wins in the process, then bully for them.  

Regardless, there is still something quite troubling about the “competitive balance” argument.  Actually, two things are the most troubling: 

  1. Fans of small market teams who believe in that argument believe it with a very deep passion.
  2. David Stern does not, under any circumstances, actually want that.

What Stern wants is the illusion of competitive balance.  He wants fans of the Indiana Pacers and Sacramento Kings to THINK they’ve got a chance.  But he doesn’t actually want those teams to play each other for a title.  Oh, sure, he’ll smile and say the right things if they did, but he’d cringe at the money being lost by no one watching that Finals.  Championship series typically get good ratings because the playoffs pick up casual fans along the way, culminating in a grand finale of massive viewership.  But if there are no recognizable teams or names for those casual fans to latch on to or root against, then they just don’t stick around.  

Big markets are the sharks.  The small markets are the remoras that tag along for the ride, feeding off the big fellas.  That’s how it is.  That’s how the leagues want it (except football, but football is SUCH a juggernaut, that regular rules don’t apply to them).  And no matter what the CBA brings us this time around, that’s how it’s going to be down the line.  

In the middle of my Twitter rant this morning, this link was passed along to me.  It’s David Aldridge making the same argument about competitive balance.  And, because he’s David Aldridge and I’m not, he does a much better job of it.  Here’s a particularly interesting section, which came after listing big market teams which have dominated each decade.

You’ll notice the 1970-1980 decade is missing. That was the only period in league history that can truly be considered democratic. Seven different teams won championships: the Knicks, Bucks, Lakers, Warriors, Blazers, Bullets and Sonics. That would seem to be the kind of parity the league is now seeking. And the league was so popular that its Finals games had to be shown on tape delay. To be fair, there were other factors at play then — the league was overwhelmed by the perception of white fans that its black players were all on drugs, for one. But the bottom line is the bottom line — in the most egalitarian 10-year stretch in league history, no one watched on television, and people hated the on-court product.

Go read that piece.  It’s full of great examples that I’d love to make but can’t do nearly as well.  The synopsis, though, is something I’ve been saying all along:  A smart GM in a smaller market will be successful while a bad GM in a big market will not.  The big-market advantage lies not with the ability to stockpile talent, but with the ability to spend its way out of mistakes more quickly.  Thus big markets can take more chances that the little guys.  But those chances don’t always pan out. 

The argument that big market teams can just fly miles above the cap and luxury tax to stockpile talent holds no water.  There is one example of stockpiling talent, and that’s the Miami Heat.  And to do that they had to have three stars of varying degrees agree to take less than what they could on the open market (good luck making that a trend).  Beyond that, they had to piece together the complimentary pieces with the one free-agent exception they had (the mid-level, spent on Mike Miller) and minimum wage deals with spare-parts from other teams.

The Celtics “super team,” constructed a few years ago, was built much differently.  The Celtics traded players and picks away to get Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen.  They had to give up plenty to get themselves into the same situation as Miami (filling in blanks with the mid-level and minimum wage players).  And as we’ve seen, with both Miami and Boston, a single whiff in that plan can derail you.  Mike Miller wasn’t worth the mid-level.  Neither was Jermaine O’Neal.  James Posey was in 2007-08, and he helped bring Boston a title. 

I digress.  The point here is that mere money isn’t the path to all championships.  You need to be smart and a little lucky.  Small market teams can do it, but admittedly not as easily as the big boys.  And that’s how David Stern wants it.  Because small market success is great for the small markets, but its bad for the NBA’s bottom line.  The San Antonio Spurs three title runs were three of the worst-rated Finals in league history.  In 2007, the Spurs and small-market Cavs, even with LeBron, drew a 6.2 rating.  In 2008, the Lakers and Celtics squared off and got a 9.3 rating, up 50% from the previous year.  In 2009, when the Lakers faced Orlando, ratings dropped to an 8.4.  And then in 2010, when the Lakers and Celtics had their rematch, it drew a 10.6. 

Big markets equal big ratings.  Big ratings equal big dollars.  And big dollars keep everyone satiated.  The bottom line is always going to be about the bottom line, which means small markets will largely remain bottom-feeders.  As much as I hate to say it, that is how it is.  David Stern may say he wants you to be competitive, but he sure as hell doesn’t want you to win.  Because when you small markets win, the NBA loses.