Winning Winners

(I originally wrote this post over two weeks ago. But for whatever reason I sat on it, and then sat on it some more. It may be a little dated — the NCAA Championship game was the worst ever — but Arsenal’s continuing incompetence which gave United the title without even playing brought this back to life. Enjoy.)

Joe Posnaski penned a great piece about March Madness earlier today two weeks ago. To him, the tournament bucks the trend of basketball’s dynastic nature. He writes:

Basketball is probably the most predictable of all our team sports. Well, it only makes sense. Everything is on a smaller scale in basketball. The court is smaller. There are fewer players on each team. There are fewer players on each roster.

There are fewer angles, fewer moves, fewer countermoves. One great basketball player can make a larger impact, I suspect, than one great player on any other team sport.

If you need proof of basketball’s predictability — look at the NBA…

Here are three NBA facts that might blow your mind:

1. Of the last 59 NBA Finals, 38 of them featured either the Celtics or the Lakers, often both.

2. Since 1984, only seven different teams have won an NBA title. Seven! And only one of them — the Miami Heat — won only one title.

Let’s put this in a little bit of perspective:

Number of teams that have won their championship since 1984:
World Series: 18
Super Bowl: 14
Stanley Cup: 13
NBA Finals: 7

We often hear how predictable footy can be (which is one big reason MLS uses the playoff system, and is subsequently ridiculed). To put this in more perspective, here is the number of teams in the big four leagues that have won a championship since 1984:

England: 7
Spain: 6
Germany: 6
Italy: 8

Unless something wild happens in Italy or Germany, those numbers aren’t on course to change this season.

In England, only Blackburn and Leeds United have won one title (and Leeds won it before the Premier League so that doesn’t count, right?) In Spain and Italy there have been three solitary winners: Deportivo La Coruna, Atlético Madrid, and Atletic Bilbao; and Lazio, Sampdoria, and Hellas Verona.

Numerically, Germany is probably the worst culprit with Wolsburg being the only team to win just one title. Proportionally, Spain is probably the worst considering they’ve had three clubs win the title once yet have just 6 unique winners.

Okay, so perhaps this is apples and oranges as there are no playoffs in footy. Nor are there revenue sharing, draft picks, or any other form of sporting socialism that drive the franchise-model here. So, let’s also account for (the major) Domestic Cup winners since 1984 in each nation for good measure:

England: 9
Spain: 12
Germany: 13
Italy: 11

Add a +1 to England and possibly in Germany and Italy (right? I don’t know who are in the cup finals there) and it’s a bit more on par with what we see here stateside.

So, what’s the point of all this? Well, we travel traveled to Old Trafford on last Saturday and United have another title basically locked up. But rather than gallop to the title like they’ve done in the past and like we’re seeing with Barcelona, this season resembles more of a slow, laborious stutter akin to a zombie. A hallmark of Romero films wasn’t the zombies killing the protagonists, it was what the protagonists did to themselves to be devoured by the zombies.

And it’s that fact is most maddening to me. Shouldn’t we want more out of this game? Shouldn’t we demand bread and circus considering the exorbitant costs following the game now requires? If sports are now deemed entertainment, well, dammit, I’d like to be entertained. What made our European run last year so darn exciting, beyond that the fact we beat Juve and played in a Cup final, is that it was so unpredictable. Who in their right mind thought we could do what we do?

No one, and that naivety per se is what made it so special.

Overall, if it wasn’t for the unpredictability (to a point) of the Champions and Europa League, would soccer exist as it does now? Or would we have tuned it out like we now do with the ever-predictable various forms of auto racing? I’m fully aware a tournament/playoffs–which the Champions League basically is–doesn’t reward the “best” team like a reason season does; so I’m not suggesting that the EPL, or La Liga, or any other non-MLS footy league adopt that wholesale.

But what’s the answers? Financial fair play? Salary caps?

I don’t know.

I’m going to watching playoff hockey, even though I’m fully aware 6 months of regular season play (and high ticket costs) can be undone in just 4 games. But dammit, I’m entertained.

14 thoughts on “Winning Winners

  1. Contrast that with golf at the moment. OK it’s not a team sport, but every tournament lately is wide open – lots of first time winners – and the Masters was led on the last day by about 7 or 8 different golfers.
    Still – imagine what it must be like trying to get excited about the Scottish premier league. Who’s turn is it this year?

    And I just want to say…
    What is the point of posts like this? I guess they are generated by a computer somewhere – is there any way of stopping them?

    1. Good point re: golf and the SPL. Only Aberdeen have won it since 1984.

      And what exactly are you referring to with computer generated posts? I’m confused.

  2. I was just going to recommend NHL hockey to you up until that last sentence. Salary-cap and a great on ice product. The first round of the playoffs is the best hockey in the world.

    1. I hope Rich doesn’t fire me for admitting this, but I’ve probably watched more hockey since new years than footy. A big part of that is probably down to the fact hockey (and particularly my Leafs) is/are on 3 times a week, and Fulham, oh, 3 times a month.

      I left after the lockout and now I’m back. Feels great–though they need to ditch the shootout in the regular season. What dross.

      1. I’m sure the Financial Fair Play laws will make something happen. And ultimately we’re not here to try to win the league.

        If you look at Fulham FC as part of a continuum you’ve a few dozen seasons of mid-table in the second tier, a few seasons of doing well in the second tier, a few seasons of doing badly there and lower, and a few ‘golden’ seasons of mid-table or lower in the top tier. We’re in one of those now and it is being taken for granted.

        It shouldn’t be, and I still think this is a great chance for fulham fans to enjoy seeing some of the game’s best players, which we certainly are.

        In the great escape season a few of us weren’t that upset, as a return to a lower division would presumably mean more away wins, more interesting grounds to visit, and more unpredictable games in general. We survived, and look where it took us, but the price you pay is being in a league that’s not all that interesting at times.

        So I don’t know. The one thing with having dominant sides is that, if this is to be the case, you’d like to feel like you’re watching greatness. It doesn’t really feel like that now, but there’s no doubt that the division is a bit more competitive this season, and that if it had been replayed 50 times you’d probably have a good number of interesting twists and turns. So next season should be good, particularly with QPR up, and maybe Norwich too.

  3. It’s the predictability which makes the unexpected (odd away win, beating a ‘bigger’ team at home, a top ten finish, relegation) more surprising – no?

    1. right. Those wins over United and Liverpool in the last few seasons have been brilliant. As we’ve said at the time, where’s the fun in being a big club and having to win every week?

  4. Whenever the office types attempt to make a sport more interesting it often ends up detracting. Witness the introduction of the wild card in baseball. Now there’s talk of adding another wild card. Ugh. It demeans the regular season. I understand it’s an attempt to be more inclusive and get more teams in the mix but it’s essentially making a new problem in an attempt to fix another problem. Frankly if my team is a .500 team I DON’T want them in the post-season. I want to see the teams that have been the best over the longest period of time.

    Rich makes some good points in the comments–there are plenty of seasons where you can take something away, seasons that feel satisfying w/o having tried to dominate the world. My friends who are Chelsea and UTD fans often seem like they miss the point. I heard UTD fans talking about the treble recently so now, no doubt, some will be disappointed they didn’t take everything. They make fandom seem boring.

  5. At least in the way the rest of the world plays the beautiful game, there is always something to play for. You can play to win your league, qualify for a tournament-league, or simply stay up. Our lovely cottagers may just qualify for Europe simply by being nice! (fair play). Sure the Big Four may win the league most years, but it isn’t the only silverware up for grabs.

    I have a feeling that financial fair-play may have some un-intended consequences that hurt smaller clubs, but I really don’t know enough it.

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