Tracer Rounds: How Screwed Up Are American Sports?

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Yep, we’re talking sports… ~

Brant, 9 May 2016

Since last Monday, Leicester City have won the Premier League title and Newcastle have all but consigned themselves to being relegated.  And right there, I just lost 2/3 of my usual audience, so what the hell, who cares what I say next, right?  I mean, seriously, just fuck wargaming and why bother and who cares and lets turn GrogHeads into a sports blog!  Still with me?  OK, cool.

The Leicester City story is the one that’s resonating more around the world, because it’s the upstart underdogs sticking around and kicking the tails off the big boys all year.  It’s also remarkable because this isn’t a flash-in-the-pan run through an end-of-year tournament that we call the “playoffs” here in the US.  This is a season-long sustainment of excellence in the face of some pretty daunting odds, not UConn getting hot and winning the six games they needed to win the NCAA title.

Here in the US, we’re used to talking about “who can get into the playoffs” and “who gets hot at the right time” and we even devote endless hours of argument at the end of the college football season to “who is playing best right now?” as though September never happened.  We focus so much on the 3 rounds of playoffs, or 3 games of playoffs in football, that we lose sight of the sustained excellence over 4-6 months of continual games.  

Who was the best baseball team of 2001?  Well, the Yankees won the World Series – the culmination of a 6-week tournament at the end of the season.  But they only won 95 games, to Seattle’s 116.

Who was the best NFL team of 2007?  The Giants won the end-of-season tournament as a classic underachieving team got healthy/lucky/hot at the right time.  But are we that ready to ignore New England’s undefeated season?

If Golden State fails to win the NBA title this year, what does that say about their 73 wins from October to March?

This is going to come across as a soccer-über-alles story, but it isn’t, because the method can be applied to any sport: who is the best across an entire season of playing everyone else, not just who happened to get into this end-of-year tournament we call the playoffs?  It’s funny that we say we want a team to “earn it on the field” while conveniently ignoring the entire season on the field that just happened.  Oh, and that “earning it on the field”?  Let’s ask the 2011 LSU Tigers how that worked out.  They did earn it on the field – at ‘Bama! – and still got forced into a rematch, after which the ‘Bama folks all gleefully printed up shirts proclaiming that they “won the one that counted” and they were absolutely right, as every college pundit on the planet tried to assure us that a playoff wouldn’t make the regular season meaningless (hint: it has).

The irony, of course, is that NASCAR (possibly the most ‘Murican – and therefore anti-soccer – of any sport)had it exactly right for the longest time.  The winner of the Winston/Sprint Cup was the best racer over the season of 30-odd races.  You had to excel all year long to win.  Now, you just have to be barely-more-than-mediocre until the “Chase for the Cup” comes around, and then you’re in NASCAR’s “playoffs” and you only have to be great for about 10 races.

Meanwhile, you have a dozen or so baseball teams not trying to win their division, or win their league, but just trying to win enough to qualify for the end-of-year tournament.  Because you don’t need to be excellent to be crowned the champion in any sports league in the US. You just need to be ‘better than average’ and then get hot (or lucky) at the right time.  Yes, this keeps more teams “in it” later into the season.  But how many teams go into the season fully expecting to suck balls and not even challenge for the title, and we still let them play?  76ers, anyone?GHLogoText

While crowning the champion of the season instead of the end-of-season tournament might seem to remove a lot of the drama from the season as it starts to wind down, you’ve missed the other half of the equation: the worst teams get booted from the league.  If you want to field a team with AAA talent, you get to do so in a AAA league, with AAA contracts, and AAA money coming in, instead of the bait-and-switch you get to pull on your fans by advertising a major league team with no intention of competing with the other major league teams.

The Houston Astros trying to lose 100 games each year while Brad Mills was managing?  Ship ‘em to the International League.  The 76ers want to field D-league players?  Fine, do it in the D-league?  Edmonton wants to “get younger” then do it against teams trying to be younger.

Newcastle weren’t trying to be any of those things.  They’ve just sucked for most of the season, and done so with a halfway decent roster.  But they’re still going to be playing in the second-division (oddly called “The Championship”) next year because they were one of the three worst teams in the league.  Imagine how much more meaningful the games in Houston would have been in 2012 if the Astros had to win just to stay in the major leagues.  How hard would Philly have been fighting this past season if they knew the alternative was spending next season playing in Sioux Falls and Bakersfield and Reno and Santa Cruz?  (Though having been to Santa Cruz in February, I gotta imagine it’s more pleasant than Philly in February.)

Now, I completely understand how both of these systems evolved here in the US.  The “playoffs” emerged as a dick-measuring contest between rival leagues, like when baseball’s American League started up as a competitor to the National League before they consolidated into the “Major Leagues”.  Ditto with the Super Bowl.  Once the owners realized there was more money to be made in playoff games, and that more playoffs meant more money for all of them, the playoffs went from the World Series to the League Championship Series to the Division Series to the Wild Card Play-in game, and now we’re in danger of having half of all baseball teams in the Major Leagues making the playoffs, not unlike the NHL, where it’s harder to miss the playoffs than make them.  And where there’s money to be made, we’re going to put more of them on the air.

Additionally, I get why we don’t have “relegation” in the big leagues to force teams that aren’t trying to win to actually give a shit.  We don’t “promote” teams from the minor leagues when it’s time to expand the league.  We let owners with huge pockets buy their way in, rather than letting teams who are actually good play their way in.  We want teams to “earn it on the field” until, y’know, it comes to deciding which teams even get to the field.  And so instead of letting a AAA baseball team play their way into the major leagues, we say “hey, there’s a lot of TV sets in Phoenix, so put a team there!” instead of saying “hey Phoenix, if your AAA team is good enough, we’ll promote them to the big leagues, and if Charlotte, or Richmond, or Columbus turns out to be better than you, tough crap.”  It’s the ultimate American contradiction that we let owners buy their way into the league and then make them share their TV revenue with everyone else and limit how much they can spend on players.

Yes, I get that the current US minor-league baseball system means that AAA teams are aligned with major league teams have developing players on those teams and yadda yadda yadda.  Fine.  But Columbus has changed major-league affiliates 3 times in 8 years.  This isn’t insurmountable.

This week’s soundtrack:

I saw these guys on AXS’s coverage of JazzFest in New Orleans.  I’m now hooked.  They rock.


Game that caught my eye:

I finally got my copy of Aftershock!  Kids, the lesson here is “be enough of a pest to someone and they’ll send you what you want just to make you go away!”

Review will follow 🙂


What I’m doing this week when I should be playing games:

Looking for a job and/or hoping to hear about interviews for full-time teaching jobs for which I’ve already applied.  Oh, and reading my copy of Zones of Control that arrived this past week.


The best thing I read this week:

New feature – giving you something different to read, besides me, that might be pretty interesting.  This week, The Americans takes on a real-life twist as a couple of kids find out their parents are Russian spies.

This week’s poll:


Signing off…   Bayonet 06 – out!

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7 Responses to Tracer Rounds: How Screwed Up Are American Sports?

  1. MetalDog says:

    My favorite recurring feature is the FRIDAY thread! But only if I get to start it 😉 No, really, it’s a tie between the Grogcast and Tracer Rounds.

  2. Keith Rose says:

    You got it in one word – money. Regarding the UK Premier League, there was a recent concern that, as many of the club owners were now “foreign” (and yes, that includes you USA!) that they would vote to stop relegation & promotion, so that there income was guaranteed ad infinitum. This would of course be terrible IMO, relegation & promotion are at the heart of UK football.
    However, that said, I love American football, and we can learn a lot from it. The stopped clock, the flags on the play, the draft system (is it still the case the worst team gets the first pick?) are all great ideas that the soccer dinosaurs in the UK have failed to adopt to the detriment of the game.
    I guess as with all things there’s rarely a perfect system, but we should be cherry picking from the other to try to get close.

    • Brant Guillory says:

      re: Draft – yes, we’ve got them in all of our sports here, and they start with the worst teams and work their way back. Basketball has a “lottery” so that the worst team doesn’t necessarily get the first pick, but they’ve got the best chance at it.

  3. marty ward says:

    In baseball you must first play 162 games. Then the 3 teams who win their division plus the wild card must win8 more games then win 4 more to win the World series. It is fair to say the best team wins. Same with Hockey and Basketball, you need to finish in the top 1/2 of the league after playing 82 games then win another 16 games against the top teams to win the championship. I think any of these leagues are as hard, if not harder, to win than the Premier League.
    Football and College basketball don’t have that, you get hot, win 6 games and you are the NCAA champ. In the NFL you can win 3 in a row and win the Super Bowl. It is not always the best team that wins these.

    • Brant Guillory says:

      Hockey has 30 teams, and 16 of them make the playoffs. That’s more than half 🙂

      • marty ward says:

        Yes but they were the best 16 teams. So whoever wins has to beat 4 of the best 4 times each. Not an easy task and certainly challenging enough to say the best team wins it. The 1 and dones are not the best way of determining who the best team is. It is just a different way to crown the champ, not unlike the World Cup.

  4. […] like I’m forcing it.  Some days I honestly feel like I’m mailing it in (see the column about professional sports from last Spring).  Some days the column just flows and before I know it, I’m at 2800 words and […]

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