Barcelona, Manchester United: Is there enough parity in international soccer?

The stadium scene.
March 3 2011 10:11 AM

Parity vs. Greatness

The most important debate in sports.

(Continued from Page 1)

One reason people like to watch team sports is to witness intensely competitive games—contests between evenly matched opponents in which the outcome hangs in doubt. Another is to watch extraordinarily gifted players play the game at the highest level. If you engineer a league to have an even distribution of talent—tightly regulating player movement, enforcing spending limits, funneling cash and talent to the weakest teams—then you encourage close games. But because the best players are spread out across more teams, you discourage fantastic displays of skill.

If, on the other hand, you build a league to concentrate talent among a few top teams—lifting spending limits, making sure the elite take the lion's share of revenue—you might see transcendent teams push the game to unprecedented heights. You will also send the competition spiraling in the direction of one-sidedness. Watching Madrid in full flight can be breathtaking … but who were they playing again? (Sid Lowe pointed out last month that Madrid and Barcelona had won 119 of their last 140 games against teams outside their duopoly, losing—collectively—six.) At one end of the scale is a slot-machine tournament. At the other is the Harlem Globetrotters.

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The old chat-room debate about parity vs. dynasties, in other words, is deeply embedded in the structures of sports leagues themselves. American and European leagues have taken radically divergent paths in resolving that debate, mostly for economic reasons. The closed, cartel-like American leagues favor stringent equality, while the messier, less tightly controlled European leagues are more susceptible to what a politician would call "powerful interests." In America, when a team like the Miami Heat acquires three world-class players, it provokes a nationwide meltdown. In Europe, Real Madrid frequently leaves three world-class players on the bench.

For fans, or for me anyway, each approach offers something that the other gives up. I love the crazy steeplechase of the NFL season, but there's some justice to Bill Simmons' complaints about the era of "perpetual putridity." I wish more soccer games felt important, but I also love the larger-than-life, consistent-across-seasons personalities of the top teams, which lend them a quality of glitzy myth—the Iliad plus tabloid headlines.

So how do you find the right line? Would it be worth achieving greater parity in soccer if it meant breaking up Barcelona? (Is it OK if I answer no?) By the same token, imagine if American leagues had developed along the lines of European soccer. Would it have been more fun to watch the Lakers trample the Bucks by 40, back in the day, if the Lakers had a roster as stacked as the 1992 Dream Team? At least in soccer there's the Champions League, where the various god-behemoths finally groan onto the field against each other. The NFL, by contrast, is the only high-level American football competition in the world (sorry, Finland). Does it need extreme parity in order to keep the stakes high, or—after five straight years in which the defending Super Bowl champion has failed to win a playoff game—would it be more exciting for fans to have a reliable standard of excellence?

As a practical matter, these are irrelevant questions as long as the money keeps rolling in on both sides of the Atlantic. Philosophically, they make an absorbing conundrum, and how you answer it depends on whether your list of supreme traits in sports includes excitement, suspense, intensity, and drama—or beauty, beauty, greatness, greatness, and greatness.

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Brian Phillips writes regularly about soccer for Slate. He blogs at The Run of Play.

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