Parity Or No Parity In Professional Sports Leagues?

It’s all about preference. It is no secret that professional sports all around the world vary in terms of the level and type of competition in their leagues. Take the NHL for example, where we witnessed an 8th seed defeating a 6th seed for the Stanley Cup. That is in sharp contrast to the NBA, where year in and year out there are at best 4 or 5  teams that can be considered true contenders.

Then there are the various playoff formats that leagues utilize. Prior to this season, the MLB playoffs included just 8 teams out of 30 and even with the recent additional wild card slots, pro baseball still only features 10 of its 30 teams in the post-season. On the other hand hand, both the NBA and the NHL take the top 8 teams from its 2 conferences thus featuring 16 teams, almost double that of the MLB.

What kind of competition is the best kind? Despite featuring a plethora of teams in the playoffs, some might argue that the NBA is generally uncompetitive due to the fact that upsets are few and far between. A low seed might win a game or two, but in basketball the better team almost always wins. Surprises happen, but surprises rarely last well into a 7 game playoff series and it is for that reason that the NBA playoffs don’t truly get interesting until the 2nd or even the 3rd round.

It could be argued that this is how it should be. The argument goes that the elite deserve to be the elite because they simply are the best. The point of any sport is to determine who is first place and in the NBA this goal is almost always achieved. No one can doubt that this year’s champions, the Miami Heat, were clearly the league’s best team, but that sometimes cannot be said for other sports.

In hockey and the NHL, the chances of making the playoffs alike the NBA is actually greater than 50%, as out of 30 teams, 16 will qualify. Where the NHL differs from its basketball counterpart is that in hockey, upsets happen almost on a regular basis. More evident than in any other sport is the irrelevance of being a top playoff seed.

Just this past year, the 8th seeded Los Angeles Kings were able to defeat the NHL’s top regular season team in the Vancouver Canucks. This was no rarity however, as the Washington Capitals, the Philadelphia Flyers and the New Jersey Devils were all able to win their first round matchups as the lower seeded team. In the NBA, seeing just one lower seeded team win a series in the first round would be significant.

Baseball may be the scenario where there might be too much competition. In the MLB, only the truly elite qualify for the post-season as the massive 162 game schedule truncates even the greatest of fluke runs. The 8 team format leaves out many good ball teams and allows for only the great ones. Oftentimes however, the MLB has been criticized for such an arrangement as teams around the league have been prevented from post-season play despite their accomplishments.

Take the American League East for example, which currently features 4, if not 5 strong baseball teams. The New York Yankees will almost assuredly take the division and qualify for the playoffs, but the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, the Boston Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles are all good teams that should probably be in the playoffs. In reality however, only 1 or 2 will do so due to the present format.

Having looked at the three leagues, there really is no answer to which one is the best. As fans, we all have our preferences and choose to follow whichever league(s) we want.

What’s your preference? Let me know in the comments below.