Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Baseball Post

Baseball fans have to put up with quite a bit of nonsense about competitive's a favorite of baseball sportswriters and pundits, and in my experience a favorite of baseball haters of all kinds.  Baseball is perpetually supposedly rigged in favor of big market teams, and people tend to believe that whatever the evidence actually shows.

What I'm curious about is whether anyone complains about it in basketball.  I rarely get involved in conversations about the NBA, and I pretty much skip most of the coverage in my local newspaper, but I certainly don't get the impression that people consider it a major problem.  I guess I'm aware of conspiracy-like theories about the draft lottery supposedly having been fixed to favor the Knicks at some point...that's about all I remember.  As I said, I don't pay a lot of attention, but as far as I know there's no such dominant conversation, certainly nothing like what baseball has.

And yet...

The Lakers are the NBA champs (again); the Yankees are the defending World Series champs (again).  The biggest three cities in the US -- also the biggest three TV markets -- are New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, right?  So let's see, now. 

In baseball, one team from NY/LA/CHI was in the World Series in 2009.
In the last ten years, 2000-2009, there were seven of those teams.
In the previous ten years, 1989-1999 (no WS in 1994), just three.
The previous ten years, 1979-1988, it happen four times.
Before that, 1969-1978, eight times.
And before that, 1959-1968, nine times.

So: it used to be almost an average of one team a year from the top three cities in the World Series, but in the last thirty years it's only happened about every other year.

What about the NBA?  There was one of those teams in the NBA Finals in 2010.  So:
In the last ten years, 2001-2010, it happened eight times.
In the ten previous years, 1991-2000, ten times, with only one year without such a team.
The previous ten years, 1981-1990, just seven times.

Before that was 1971-1980, only five times.
And before that, 1961-1970, eight times.

That would be, if my count is correct, twenty-five teams in the last thirty years, and 38 in 50 years -- compared to 14 in 30 years in baseball, and 31 in 50 years. 

Of course, basketball also has a dominant "other" team from a very big market, although not from the top doesn't really have anything like that.  I'm not sure how to think about that, one way or another.  But, really, I'm not trying to make a strict comparison between big market advantages in baseball vs. basketball; I'm just wondering why market size is a huge big deal in baseball, but not in basketball.  Or, perhaps some readers who are far more rounded sports fans than me could tell me if I'm wrong: do NBA fans worry about market size? 


  1. They do, but the argument is so easily refuted that it doesn't get very far.

    Market sizer: Lakers!
    NMS: Clippers.
    MS: Bulls!
    NMS: Knicks.
    (Out comes the ace)
    NMS: Detroit!

    At that point, the victorious non-market sizer gathers his chips and watches MS silently slink away.

  2. And yet, in baseball invoking, say, St. Louis doesn't seem to end the argument.

  3. Obviously the salary cap is the difference. The Yankees and the Red Sox can pay however much they want for their players; the NBA has a soft cap, but it's still a cap.

  4. Yeah, I don't know how that would work if you could adjust for the anti-Yankee factor.

    I'm not a salary cap believer. Lakers/Bulls/Detroit/San Antonio have dominated since the salary cap, before that it was more of a mix. You had the Celtics, then New York, Philly, Golden State, Milwaukee. Lots of small markets. I'm not married to the idea, but I don't think the salary cap has had that much impact on the game, overall. The game itself has fundamentally changed, but I don't attribute it to the salary cap. I'm willing to be wrong, however.

  5. Perhaps the answer lies in whether teams want to win or just make money, interacted with wealth redistribution. Tampa Bay can be good because they have taken the luxury tax money and spent it on player development. Kansas City is god-awful because the owner pockets that money.

    In baseball, are there any big market teams that are just dreadful? I can't think of any: Dodgers, Angels, Cubs, both Sox, Mets, Yankees....all these teams perform respectably. Yes, the Cubs haven't won in a century, but all these teams generally finish above .500. Focusing on who wins is a narrow metric; if you just correlate market size to winning percentage, I'd guess that there's a positive correlation for baseball, and a much weaker one for basketball.

  6. Well, they may be respectable now, but the Angels spent about 40 years embarrassing themselves and their fans before that. Meanwhile you had KC who had a run, Cincinnati had a run, even CLEVELAND!

    I don't buy into the Market Size theorum, and tend to think that an owner interesting in winning, excellent general management and scouting, smart trading and negotiating, and some damn good luck explain most of the difference.

    Except for the Yankees, of course.

  7. The answer to this question is closely and directly related to the answer to another question: Can Cleveland keep LeBron James?

    A single player has far more impact on a basketball team. The impact is more predictable as well, which is important for deciding how to spend big money. Without equalizers (salary cap, revenue sharing, draft lottery, etc.) basketball would be totally dominated by large markets.

  8. I'm no expert on this, so I won't say that James is wrong not to be a salary cap "believer," but I have a hard time believing that if the Lakers were allowed to have a payroll more than twice the size of all but five or six other teams, that would have an impact on the league and you would probably hear more grumbling of the kind Jonathan is talking about.

  9. Well, having a massive payroll doesn't guarantee success. The Lakers have a great market share, sure, but a very smart and supportive owner, brilliant management, talented coaching, and some of the best scouts in the league. Contrast that with the Clippers in the same market with the same salary cap, who have just the opposite situation. And the opposite results. And how about those Knicks? Huge market share, Clipper-level management. Clipper-level results. Would the Lakers do even better if they had five times the payroll? Who knows?

    I just don't think the evidence shows that market share is all that influential in team success, and I haven't seen actual evidence that the salary cap has produced more equitable team success in basketball. As I pointed out, just the opposite, of you look only at the championship list over the years. Where's the evidence?

    How do you control for the influence of wanting to sign with a winner, wanting to play for a great coach, a team tradition of winning? With baseball, I think the strength of their farm system is more important than market share. Those elements, plus the management structure, certainly can explain the difference between the Dodgers and the Angels. The Dodgers never had any kind of massive, massive payroll, but the Angels and the old Cowboy did try to buy their way into heaven, to no avail.

    Those elements may even solve the Yankee question. Thughts?

  10. And also.

    The Clippers have had some of the most spectacular draft picks in the history of the universe. Year and year after year. The results are in. In fact, the Clippers, with their great market share and fabulous lottery picks, have had a knack for making losers out of winners. Angels too. Explain that!

    Seems like just those two teams alone, Clippers and Angels in all their misery, prima facie refute the grand Market Share Hypothesis, as well as the Salary Cap theorum.

  11. Well, two things. First, the point of a salary cap isn't competitive balance; it's to take money that would have gone to the players and give it to the teams. Same is true about the incoming player draft. They may or may not achieve other things, but that's not why they exist.

    Regardless...I could say a lot more about competitive balance in baseball, but that's not actually my question, here. If I'm hearing an answer, it seems to be that people are more concerned with a process that they believe is fair than with actual results. So because the NBA has a salary cap, which people (mistakenly) associate with competitive balance, they see the domination of NY, LA, and Chicago as a fluke, rather than an effect of the system. Is that right?

  12. You asked why "market share" wasn't such a big topic of conversation about how the NBA is "rigged" versus that enduring misconception in baseball.

    You can see in your thread here that in basketball, the topic, "game is rigged for market share" is easily refuted, but inevitably drifts into "salary cap" and "draft."

    The NBA is NOT dominated by NY, LA, and Chicago. The (NY) Knicks refute every argument about market share, as do the Clippers (and the thuggish Detroit Pistons). (Chicago did well in the Jordan Era, and is a perfectly competent team.)

    I futilely argue, in both sports, for competent management who wants to win and knows how to win. Sure, oftentimes those owners are in a major market, but many of them aren't.

    Sorry if I got the thread sidetracked trying to argue against the NBA sacred cow, the salary cap, as the end-all salvation of the NBA.

  13. You know that the Clippers, quite famously, are run in a profit-maximizing fashion, the way the Royals used to be, right? (Don Sterling is a terrible human being, too, but he could be a terrible human being interested in winning a lot of basketball games.)


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