Is Parity in Sports Really Better?

It has been said recently that the NBA has never been stronger than it is right now, and it really is true.  The NBA is all over the sports news, currently dominating the news cycle on ESPN, getting more airtime than America’s pastime, the MLB.  Franchise values are skyrocketing and the league recently turned down a prospective owner who wanted to pay a billion dollars for the Kings, over $300 million more than they was valued at before the bidding war began.  The league has two extremely marketable superstars in Kevin Durant and LeBron James, who by all accounts are not only phenomenal basketball players, but also good citizens.

The NBA is an interesting test case because of the idea of parity in sports. With the NBA, you can pick 8 teams at the beginning of the season and you will have a 90% chance of getting the correct champion. Don’t believe me? Check this out.

Here are the top 8 teams’ Vegas odds to win the NBA Title from before the season started:

Miami Heat                                  2/1
Chicago Bulls                             8/1
Oklahoma City Thunder      8/1
Los Angeles Clippers              9/1
Houston Rockets                     10/1
Indiana Pacers                          10/1
Brooklyn Nets                            10/1
San Antonio Spurs                  12/1

And here are the current odds with a week to go before the playoffs.

Miami Heat                               2/1
San Antonio Spurs                3/1
Oklahoma City Thunder    4/1
Indiana Pacers                        8/1
Los Angeles Clippers          11/1
Houston Rockets                 25/1
Brooklyn Nets                       40/1
Golden State Warriors      50/1

To recap, 7 of the 8 teams are in the same position, with the one team dropping out, the Bulls, who lost their best player and an MVP in Derrick Rose for the year. Fun fact: the 9th team in the preseason that just missed our top 8 ranking was the Golden State Warriors.

So, essentially, the biggest “upset” is that the NBA finalist from last year moved from 8th to 2nd in the NBA title race. Furthermore, the 7th team in the future odds table has the implied chance of 2.44% of winning the title, which is a little insane. Just to get a fair representation of how little change this is after an entire regular season, let’s compare the top 8 future odds of the other major sports. We’ll start with the MLB from 2013: here are the preseason odds and the odds right before the playoffs started.

Preseason                                                                                Postseason

Washington Nationals   7/1                                           Boston Red Sox               15/4
Detroit Tigers                      8/1                                           Los Angeles Dodgers    9/2
Toronto Blue Jays            8/1                                           Detroit Tigers                   19/4
Los Angeles Angels          9/1                                           St. Louis Cardinals        11/2
Los Angeles Dodgers      9/1                                           Atlanta Braves                  7/1
Cincinnati Reds                 12/1                                         Oakland Athletics           15/2
San Francisco Giants    12/1                                          Tampa Bay Rays              8/1
Atlanta Braves                  16/1                                          Pittsburgh Pirates         10/1

Wow, what a different-looking table. Two notable teams that were left off of the preseason top 8 odds were the Red Sox and the Cardinals, who were the two World Series finalists. The Red Sox were down at 15th and Cardinals were 13th. To put this in a bit of perspective, the 15th team in the NBA’s preseason NBA title list was the Cleveland Cavaliers. Overall, only 3 of the 8 teams that were on both the preseason and postseason lists, and the preseason favorite, the Nationals, didn’t even make the playoffs. The 7th team, the Rays, have an implied 11.11% chance of winning the World Series, 5 times larger than the Brooklyn Nets’ chances. Even the top teams in the preseason had very long odds – 7-1 for the Nationals, compared to the 2-1 odds that the Heat had to begin the season. Even with the MLB playoffs containing half the number of teams the NBA playoffs do, the postseason favorite, the Red Sox, were about half as likely to win the title, per Vegas.

Additionally, the MLB is the league that often is seen as a league where only the Red Sox and Yankees are relevant, due the lack of a salary cap, where small market teams can never compete, but it seems like this is very false. The Rays, Pirates and Athletics are all in the top 8, and they are small market teams with very small budgets, while the Braves rarely run high payrolls either.

All in all, it is extremely clear that the MLB has much more parity than the NBA. Now, let’s investigate the NHL.

Preseason                                                                                            Postseason

Chicago Blackhawks    6/1                                                          Boston Bruins                 9/2
Pittsburgh Penguins    15/2                                                        St. Louis Blues               5/1
Los Angeles Kings         12/1                                                         Chicago Blackhawks  7/1
Boston Bruins                 12/1                                                         Pittsburgh Penguins  15/2
St. Louis Blues                12/1                                                         San Jose Sharks           9/1
Detroit Red Wings        16/1                                                          Anaheim Ducks            10/1
Vancouver Canucks    16/1                                                          Los Angeles Kings       12/1
Toronto Maple Leafs  18/1                                                          Colorado Avalanche  16/1

The NHL’s preseason and postseason odds are much better predictors than the MLB’s. However, there are still only 5 of the 8 teams that carry over from the preseason to the postseason. These odds are slimmer than the MLB’s, perhaps because of the 7-game nature of the NHL playoffs, and not  5-game series like in the MLB. Still, going back to the NBA, the teams have much longer odds at the top, and there are no teams that are 2/1, or even 4/1, like the 3rd ranked Thunder in the NBA.

Interestingly, the MLB and NHL, which have been really falling in popularity recently, have significantly more parity than the NBA. However, there is one league that hasn’t been covered. Let’s look at the NFL and their 2013 preseason and postseason odds.

Preseason                                                                                            Postseason

Denver Broncos              6/1                                                           Seattle  Seahawks          11/4
San Francisco 49ers      6/1                                                           Denver Broncos                3/1
Seattle  Seahawks         17/2                                                         San Francisco 49ers       7/1
New England Patriots  10/1                                                        New England Patriots   9/1
Atlanta Falcons               12/1                                                         Carolina Panthers          10/1
Green Bay Packers        12/1                                                         Green Bay Packers        12/1
Houston Texans             16/1                                                         Cincinnati Bengals        16/1
New Orleans Saints     18/1                                                         Philadelphia Eagles      16/1

Well, this is interesting. Looking at the NFL, its parity is much closer to that of the NBA than of the MLB or NHL. The top 4 teams in the preseason and the postseason are the exact same, in just a slightly different order, with Denver, San Fran, and Seattle all having around 6-1 odds (which are quite high for a preseason favorite). Looking at the whole list as a whole, 5 of the 8 teams are on both lists. However, the Saints were 9th on the postseason list. Zeroing in on the top 2 teams, Seattle and Denver have extremely short odds when considering the NFL Playoffs is a 12 team single elimination tournament, with both Seattle and Denver having an implied 33% chance of winning the title. Not only were the odds so high before the playoffs started, they played out correctly, with both Seattle and Denver meeting in the Super Bowl.

Looking at each league and their levels of parity, it is interesting to see that the NFL and NBA are much more top-heavy than the MLB and NHL. The NFL has a reputation of having a large amount of parity in their teams, but after a glance at the data, it doesn’t seem to stand up.

The two leagues that are currently the most popular, the NBA and the NFL, are very top heavy. Fans and league executives often say that they want more parity, not wanting one or two teams dominating the league like the Heat or the Broncos, but after thinking about these numbers, I think the appeal of the big ticket matchups in the NFL and NBA, such as Broncos vs. Patriots and Heat vs. Thunder, is much more important, and gets both the hardcore fan and the average person to tune in to watch. All in all, fans like leagues where there is a good deal less parity.

Overall, it would seem that for better business, leagues should not be promoting parity, and should instead be hoping for superteams where several matchups each year become must-see events and draw in massive television audiences, driving up both advertising dollars and media coverage.

by Robert Garcia, Northwestern University

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