So “The Big Game” (no, I’m not allowed to call it the “S—- B—“, thanks to the NFL’s intellectual property policies) is about to get started. To the surprise of nobody who knows me, I won’t be watching… that’s right, even though my hometown team is represented in the game. At some point over the last few years, I had hoped to publish my five or six part treatise on my feelings about spectator sports, both in the general and specific regards. A bit of part five – a bit about my favorite sport to watch – was published last year on the eve of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Part four, which I had hoped to publish at an opportune moment was going to lay out why I can’t stand to watch football anymore. However this was going to be informed a little bit by the parts of the series that came before, so I don’t feel like I can adequately do it justice here and now.
With spring training right around the corner, however, I’d like to take a moment to address three complaints that people often have about baseball and discuss how those same gripes are at least as applicable – if not moreso – to the NFL than to Major League Baseball. Before I get started, however, I’d like to emphasize that baseball vs. football arguments are stupid. I don’t really care if you prefer one multi-billion dollar entertainment business or another. Plenty of people like both and that’s fine. The amazing difference in the mainstream commentary on the two sports – and the hypocrisy that lies therein – is what grinds my gears. Anyway, let’s take a look at these three bits of conventional wisdom, shall we?
1. Baseball has no salary cap and no competitive balance. Football has competitive balance because it has a salary cap.
There are a lot of ways one could measure competitive balance: championships, reaching the finals, reaching the playoffs, overall winning percentages… and admittedly, I haven’t looked at all of them. Nevertheless, the goal for each team every season (at least in theory) is to reach the championship game/series, so let’s compare the number of different teams that have reached the Super Bowl vs. the number that have reached the World Series. I’ve chosen to use the 1995 season as the start point for this exercise because it represents a substantial portion of the time that economic inequity has been said to affect baseball. Also because there was no World Series in 1994.
Starting with the 1995 season, the following 19 NFL franchises have reached the Super Bowl (# of appearances in parentheses where >1): Broncos (2), Colts (2), Patriots (5), Raiders, Ravens, Steelers (4), Titans, Bears, Buccaneers, Cardinals, Cowboys, Eagles, Falcons, Giants (2), Packers (3), Panthers, Rams (2), Saints, Seahawks.
Over the same timeframe, 18 MLB franchises have reached the World Series: Angels, Indians (2), Rangers, Rays, Red Sox (2), Tigers, White Sox, Yankees (7), Astros, Braves (3), Cardinals (2), Diamondbacks, Giants (2), Marlins (2), Mets, Padres, Phillies (2), Rockies.
19 teams in the Super Bowl, 18 in the World Series. That’s pretty even, no? Perhaps if baseball admitted another four teams to its postseason (don’t do it, Bud!) or ended the season after just 16 games (which, thanks to greater variance in results puts even the lowly Pirates in the playoffs a few times during this timeframe), MLB would have even more representatives. Regardless, the results – as we’ve seen them – don’t seem to suggest that football is any more competitively balanced than baseball. All my Pittsburgh readers who are so used to the results that might suggest otherwise might want to speak to their friends in Cleveland, Detroit or Miami about a world of baseball success and football misery.
2. Baseball games are too long and too boring. Football games are not long and exciting!
Let’s address the length question first since it’s a simple matter of numbers. For 2009, the average MLB game was finished in 2:52. On the other hand, the average NFL game wraps up in 3:06. So if baseball takes too much time, then football presumably would as well. The only difference I can see is that people are less concerned about their time on a Sunday afternoon than they are on a weeknight, when a substantial portion of the MLB schedule takes place. This fails to explain the popularity of Monday Night Football, but I digress.
Boring is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, and people will certainly vary in their evaluations of how exciting anything is. That said, David Biderman at the Wall Street Journal recently attempted to quantify the amount of action in baseball vs. football. Ultimately, he found that while a baseball game only contained 14 minutes of “action”, a football game featured even less “action”: just 11 minutes.
Like I say, the qualitative differences will skew one way or the other for different people. Some people prefer a fastball that misses outside to a two yard run into a pile of defenders and vice versa. Either way, they both count as action… but there’s not a whole lot of either one. Baseball takes lots of flack for this, football doesn’t (and don’t talk to the basketball, hockey or soccer players about “standing around” time)…
3. Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs are a big problem in baseball but not in football.
For years now, sportswriters have been playing the role of the morals police, damning baseball players who used performance enhancing drugs, players who were rumored to have used performance enhancing drugs and players who hit lots of home runs and were never linked to using performance enhancing drugs but probably used performance enhancing drugs anyway because they hit lots of home runs. In a few prominent cases, the bulk of the “evidence” of PED usage was simply, “look at how big he was then and look at how big he is now!”
OK then, let’s go to the tape. Here’s a clip of the Super Bowl champion 1986 Chicago Bears (featuring at least one name familiar to Steelers fans of recent vintage)… look at those linemen! They’re freaking TINY! Walter Payton looks like a stick! Funny thing though, steroid use in football has apparently been widespread since at least to the 80’s and probably earlier. But for whatever reason, it’s something that we don’t mind keeping on the down-low, even when the players get bigger and bigger… even when star players test positive.
Now none of this should be taken as an anti-steroids stance… my views on that are much more complicated. I just don’t understand why they’re such a big deal in one sport and less so in another… a game where you’re ACTUALLY PHYSICALLY HITTING THE OTHER PLAYERS… seems like it would be a bigger deal, y’know?
Anyway, that’s that. Although it’s true that I don’t like football and take a greater interest in baseball, this isn’t an argument against one or for the other. Lots of people like both and good on them. It’s just to point out the discrepancy they get in treatment, which strikes me as unfair.