(Hines Ward of the Steelers answers questions during a Thursday press session at the Super Bowl. The Steelers have been more dominant than the Yankees or Red Sox).
With the Super Bowl mere days away, it seems an appropriate time to look at baseball vs. football.
The people, it seems, have spoken: The NFL, by most measures, has surpassed major-league baseball as our nation’s sport of choice. The latest example came over the weekend with the television numbers from the Pro Bowl: Not only did it beat major-league baseball’s All-Star Game (a vastly superior event, in my opinion), but it out-rated Game 3 of the World Series between the Giants and Rangers. This after a regular-season football game (Saints-Steelers) for the first time beat out a World Series game in the ratings. And the annual Harris Poll on American’s favorite sports released last week showed NFL football with a double-digit lead over baseball for the ninth straight year (though the gap narrowed slightly).
I’m not going to get into an indepth analysis here of why the NFL now reigns supreme. But I think part of it is the perception among fans that the MLB is build upon an unfair system, that the same teams always win (and just as importantly, the same teams never win), and that the NFL is the sport of parity, equality and a fighting chance for every team to win the championship. This year’s Super Bowl matchup is just a reinforcement of that meme: Pittsburgh vs. Green Bay. In baseball, only the most rose-colored dreamers could envision the Pittsburgh team (which has not even had a winning season since 1993) or the Wisconsin team (which hasn’t been to the World Series since 1982 — its only appearance — and has had two winnings seasons since 1992) in the World Series.
And yet the notion of NFL superiority over MLB in the realm of parity and championship opportunity is simply not borne out by the facts. Yes, the Pirates have been a downtrodden, mismanaged franchise — but are they, or the Brewers, or the Royals, or the Orioles, any more downtrodden or mismanaged or hopeless than the Detroit Lions (10 straight losing seasons), or the Buffalo Bills (six straight losing seasons, no playoffs since 1999), or the Oakland Raiders (eight straight losing seasons), or the Cleveland Browns (seven out of eight losing seasons)?
The fact is, over the last decade, the average baseball team has just as much of a chance of winning a title — if not more so — than the average NFL team. And that’s despite the fact that MLB, for now, allows only eight of its 30 teams into the playoffs (27 percent), compared to 12 of 32 in the NFL (38 percent). Playoff expansion is likely coming to MLB in 2012, in part to combat the notion that there’s not enough competitive balance in baseball.
You want to talk about different teams having an opportunity to win? Let’s look at the 11 years of the current century, taking the NFC title game compared to the NLCS, the AFC title game compared to the ALCS, and then the Super Bowl compared to the World series.
Nine different teams have competed in the last 11 AFC title games. Here are the appearances by teams:
Steelers 5, Patriots 5, Colts 3, Jets 2, Ravens 2, Raiders 2, Chargers 1, Broncos 1, Titans 1.
Over that same time period, 11 different teams have competed in the last 11 American League Championship Series. Here are the appearances by teams:
Yankees 6, Red Sox 4, Angels 3, Mariners 2, Rangers 1, Rays 1, Indians 1, Tigers 1, A’s 1, White Sox 1, Twins 1.
Twelve different teams have competed in the last 11 NFC title games:
Eagles 5, Packers 2, Bears 2, Giants 2, Saints 2, Vikings 2, Panthers 2, Seahawks 1, Cardinals 1, Bucs 1, Rams 1, Falcons 1.
Eleven different teams have competed in the last 11 National League Championship Series:
Cardinals 5, Phillies 3, Giants 2, Dodgers 2, Diamondbacks 2, Mets 2, Astros 2, Marlins 1, Cubs 1, Braves 1, Rockies 1.
Fifteen different teams have competed in the last 11 Super Bowls (with championships in parentheses):
Patriots 4 Super Bowls (3 titles), Steelers 3 (2 titles, with this year’s game still to be played), Colts 2 (1), Giants 2 (1), Packers 1 (this year’s game still to be played), Saints 1 (1), Cardinals 1, Bears 1, Seahawks 1, Eagles 1, Panthers 1, Bucs 1 (1), Ravens 1 (1), Raiders 1, Rams 1.
Fifteen different teams have competed in the last 11 World Series (with championships in parentheses):
Yankees 4 (2), Red Sox 2 (2), Cardinals 2 (1), Phillies 2 (1), Giants 2 (1), White Sox 1 (1), Marlins 1 (1), Angels 1 (1), Diamondbacks 1 (1), Mets 1, Astros 1, Rockies 1, Rays 1, Rangers 1, Tigers 1.
Pretty comparable, I would say. The NFL has had 21 different teams in its Final Four, while MLB has had 22 different teams in its Final Four. Both had 15 different teams in its championship game. Considering the NFL has more teams in its league, and MLB has fewer teams in the playoffs, I’d call it a wash. For all the talk about the Yankees and Red Sox out-spending their way to championships, the Patriots have been a bigger dynasty than either of them. And if the Steelers win Sunday, they, too, will have been more dominating in the playoffs than the Yankees or Red Sox.
Tyler Kepner of the New York Times took another angle to point out that MLB doesn’t have to apologize for its parity, compared to the NFL. He looked at the final eight teams still alive in the NFL playoffs this year, and compared them to the eight teams in the 2010 MLB playoffs. Kepner found that only one of those last eight teams alive in the NFL had gone more than five years since its last appearance in a conference title game, while in baseball, five of the eight had waited that long.
Furthermore, Kepner noted, 24 of 32 teams have made the NFL playoffs over the last five seasons — 75 percent. In MLB, 22 of 30 teams have made the playoffs over the same time span –73.3 percent. Not much of a difference, when you consider the fact that the NFL has four more playoff berths and just two more teams.
Jayson Stark of ESPN adds a few more nuggets: Only two of 16 NL teams haven’t made the playoffs over the last eight seasons — the Nationals/Expos and Pirates. Ten of the 14 AL teams have made it in that span, all except the Royals, Orioles, Blue Jays and Mariners. And the Mariners made it in both 2000 and 2001, and won 93 games the following two seasons without making the playoffs. The NFL, by comparison, also had six teams not make the playoffs over the last eight years (the 49ers, Raiders, Browns, Bills, Texans and Lions) — again, despite a bigger playoff field.
Most people complain that the same teams make it every year in baseball. But Stark points out that 11 teams have made at least five playoff appearances over the last 10 years in the NFL, compared to eight in baseball — the Yankees (9), Cardinals (7), Red Sox (6), Angels (6), Braves (6), A’s (5) and Twins (5). Furthermore, Stark noted, 16 NFL teams have made the playoffs at least four times in the last 10 years, compared to just 10 MLB teams.
More numbers: Nine teams have won the last 10 World Series (with only Boston repeating). Seven teams have won the last 10 Super Bowls (with New England winning three, and Pittsburgh two). MLB has featured a plethora of recent breakthroughs, including the GIants last year winning their first World Series since 1954, the White Sox their first in 87 years in 2005, the Red Sox their first in 85 years in 2004, the Cardinals their first in 23 years in 2006, and the Phillies their first in 27 years in 2008. The Diamondbacks, Angels, Astros, Rockies, Rays and Rangers have all appeared in their first World Series in the last 10 years.
Another rap against baseball is that payroll determines success, and though there’s certainly some truth to that (or to the converse), it’s not as cut and dry as you’d think. Jon Heyman of SI.com pointed out recently that just two of the top nine teams in Opening Day payroll qualified for the 2010 postseason, while three of the bottom 12 teams in payroll made the postseason: the Reds (19th), Rays (21st) and Rangers (27th).
Joel Sherman of the New York Post, last October, came up with an interesting way to compare competitive balance in NFL vs. MLB. He looked at each market to see which team provided its fans with more hope. Sherman determined that the NFL clearly came out on top in five markets: Ravens vs. Orioles in Baltimore, Steelers vs. Pirates in Pittsburgh, Packers vs. Brewers in Wisconsin, Redskins vs. Nationals in DC, and Chargers vs. Padres in San Diego. I’m not so sure that the last two hold up any more, to be honest.
Sherman gives the edge to seven MLB teams: Rockies vs. Broncos in Denver, Phillies vs. Eagles in Philadelphia, Tigers vs. Lions in Detroit, Rays vs. Bucs in Tampa, Cardinals vs. Rams in St. Louis, Giants vs. 49ers in San Francisco, and A’s vs. Raiders in Oakland. I’d say the gap has closed in Tampa, with the Bucs’ resurgence this year and the Rays forced to dismantle a playoff team; but with a bountiful farm system, I think the Rays are going to be better than people think in 2011. And they did make the playoffs last year — over the mighty Red Sox.
Sherman called several other market matchups a wash: Yankees/Mets vs. Giants/Jets, Twins vs. Vikings, Royals vs. Chiefs, Blue Jays vs. Bills, Cowboys vs. Rangers, Browns vs. Indians, Patriots vs. Red Sox, Braves vs. Falcons, Reds vs. Bengals, Astros vs. Texans, Diamondbacks vs. Cardinals, Marlins vs. Dolphins. I’d put Cubs/White Sox vs. Bears in that category, too. Yeah, the Cubs haven’t won a title since 1908, but they’ve made the playoffs three times in the last 10 years, while the Sox have a championship in 2005. The Bears haven’t won it all since 1985.
As for Los Angeles, the Angels and Dodgers are usually competitive (NLCS appearances for the Dodgers in 2008-09, and six playoff appearances in nine years by the Angels), while the NFL doesn’t even have a team in the nation’s No. 2 market.
In Seattle, I’d call it a wash, even though the Mariners are coming off a miserable year, and the Seahawks are coming off a playoff year (despite a 7-9 record). If you had asked this question after the 2009 season, when the M’s won 85 games while the Seahawks went 5-11 (after a 4-12 mark in ’08), I think Seattle fans would have given the hope edge to the Mariners.
I believe a large part of baseball’s image problem when it comes to parity is due to the dominance of the Yankees and Red Sox, and the fact that one or the other of those teams have made the playoffs every year since 1995 (with both of them making it in 1995, 1998, 1999, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, and 2009).
Their high-profile success, and the fact those two teams’ payroll dwarves all the other teams in baseball, leads to a perception that the other ballclubs don’t have a chance. But I’ve just shown that that’s simply not true. Even in the AL East, the Rays, with their skimpy payroll, have made the playoffs in two of the last three years. Yes, there is far more payroll disparity in baseball than in the NFL, with its salary cap. But especially in light of increased revenue sharing in baseball, almost every team is getting its turn at a title shot, provided they draft well, develop their prospects, and spend wisely. The Yankees, for all their nearly $200 million payroll and complaints of buying championships, are no sure thing — certainly no more so than the Patriots. The Yankees look to have some crippling holes in their rotation heading into 2011. And they’ve won only one World Series since 2001.
All this is just some food for thought as you prepare for Sunday’s Super Bowl. Enjoy the game, then get ready for the sport of true parity — baseball.