But not only would parity not be beneficial for the NBA, it’s not even the primary driver of the NFL’s popularity.
While the major American team sports – football, basketball, baseball and hockey – are competing for the time and money of sports fans, they are hardly operating on a level playing field. Simply put, football is really popular – a lot more popular than the other sports, possibly more than all three combined.
There’s an old saying that there are only two seasons in Texas: football and spring football. In the South, the months of September through December are built around the rhythms of the football schedule – Friday for high school, Saturday for the colleges and Sunday for the NFL.
And around the country, the sport of football is bigger than the NFL itself. For most of the last decade, Pete Carroll’s USC teams filled the pro football vacuum in the Los Angeles area. The Midwest, Great Plains and Southeast are all primarily college football markets, with the SEC and the Big 10 predating the NFL. Many of college football’s marquee programs – Nebraska, Alabama, Oklahoma, Ohio State, Tennessee – are far more popular in their home states than any pro franchise.
You certainly can’t argue that parity has fueled the rise of college football. Small schools like Boise State and TCU have to navigate a byzantine series of rules to compete for the national championship; they can’t even play the sport’s elite in the regular season, much less the post-season. TCU, now that they have joined the Big East, will never play Texas in the regular season again. The Longhorns have zero incentive to schedule them and give them a boost in recruiting. Ole Miss hasn’t won an SEC championship since 1963, and if it takes another 50 years before they win another one, the Grove will still be packed.
Parity, instead of being a boon for the NBA, would be the worst thing that could happen to it. A star-driven sport that depends heavily on TV ratings, basketball needs great teams in a way that football doesn’t. After a long slump following the retirement of Michael Jordan, the presence of super-teams from Boston, Los Angeles and Miami in the NBA Finals have significantly improved playoff ratings in recent years.
The 1980’s are widely seen as the Golden Era of the NBA, when the Celtics and Lakers squared off for a series of NBA Finals that are still talked about a generation later. Parity certainly wasn’t a huge factor back then: only five teams made the Finals in the entire decade. Would the sport have been better off if James Worthy was in Milwaukee, Robert Parish in Seattle and Kevin McHale in Golden State? If Larry Bird and Magic Johnson followed the career path of Kevin Garnett, stuck on teams that couldn’t get out of the first round?
Does anyone think that early round exits by LeBron’s Cavaliers and Chris Bosh’s Raptors would have driven the same level of excitement that the “Decision” generated for the NBA? Neither player left the team that drafted them because they wanted a bigger market; they left because they wanted a better chance to compete for championships.
Blaming the personal integrity of the departed superstar is an easy way to stifle fan discontent and avoid responsibility for the poor jobs of roster management in Toronto and Cleveland. Build a championship team and they will stay: the success of San Antonio and Oklahoma City shows that market size isn’t destiny under the current system.
Because of the importance of height in basketball, there will never be more than a handful of franchise-altering players in the NBA, regardless of how the labor agreement shakes out. The draft will always be the best way for small market teams to acquire elite players; institute a hard cap and the one chip they have to keep them – the teams they built around them – is gone. If you eliminate the cap exceptions that will allow Oklahoma City to retain Kevin Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook over the next few years, what incentive is there for Durant to not play closer to his childhood home in Washington DC?
Oklahoma City and Miami seem poised to wage a few epic NBA Finals in the coming seasons; a development ripe with easy to promote story-lines that will grow the sport immensely. The owners, worried about locking in profits at the expense of a system that makes super-teams with multiple stars feasible, are thinking short when they should be thinking long.
The best way to make a profit off a sports franchise is to sell it. Any owner who bought an NBA franchise at 1980’s values is in line to make a fortune at 2010’s values. That’s because the league, fueled by Jordan, Magic and Bird, grew exponentially in those years. Promoting parity in a way that harms the NBA’s appeal to the casual fan isn’t in anyone’s interests.