Southern Discomfort: The Dire State of Pro Sports Below the Mason-Dixon Line

Ben GunbyAnalyst INovember 15, 2007

The inhabitants of the southeastern region of the United States love their sports teams, and love them passionately. While the passion and love affair is much greater on the collegiate level, it does extend to professional sports as well. However, it's at the professional level where you see the likely reasoning the passion is far greater for the college teams in the region. While the southeast has the SEC in football and the ACC in basketball both among the elite—if not THE elite—confrences in their respective sports, when it comes to professional sports, there is a lot to be desired. In fact, most divisions with the name "South" anywhere in them on the professional level hardly resemble anything professional at all.

NHL Southeast 

Hockey may not be the most popular sport in the south, but with the number of northerners living in transplant cities such as Atlanta continuing to increase, so is the popularity of the sport in a region where an outdoor hockey game is as likely to occur as a Duke national title in football. Hockey's ability to grow in the south however would be greatly enhanced if they actually played quality hockey. Yes, prior to the Ducks winning the Stanley Cup a year ago, the Southeast division had produced the previous two winners of the Cup. However, that was two-plus years ago; this is now.

Icon Sports MediaWhat the division is now what hockey used to be in these parts—a joke. The Carolina Hurricanes are a solid hockey club, and that's about it in this division. Consider the fact that the Atlanta Thrashers (who last year won this division, only to be swept in a most embarrassing manner out of the first round by the New York Rangers) lost their first six games, and still find themselves merely one win shy of the 2nd place team in the division. Tell me there's not something inherently wrong with that.

Carolina struggled mightily last year, suffering perhaps a letdown from their Stanley Cup run the previous year. The 'Canes missed the postseason entirely last spring while the division champion Thrashers and Tampa Bay Lightning represented the division in the postseason. They didn't represent the division well, at all. They went a combined 2-8 in bowing out in the first round, getting outscored collectively 36-20. Even in Carolina's title year the previous season the division sent just one other team to the playoffs (Tampa Bay), and they were ousted in just five games in round one, outscored 23-15. So even in the "good years," overall, the division has proven to be weak, and at the bottom of the NHL barrel.

NBA Southeast 

The Southeast in the NBA though is equally pitiful—in fact, it might be worse. Like the NHL, the division did produce a World Champion just two years ago—but much like  the Hurricanes, that defending champ struggled mightily in trying to repeat. The Miami Heat did make the playoffs last year, at least. However, they more or less made them by default. They finished merely three games above .500, yet still won the division. Amazingly, both the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards made the playoffs (a reflection of the ineptitude of the Eastern Conference) despite neither finishing with more wins and losses. What transpired in the playoffs though was one of the most embarrassing performances by a division or conference in postseason history, in any sport. The three went a combined 0-12 as each was swept out of round one. That's right—not one playoff victory for the division last year.

It may be early this year, but things don't look a whole lot more promising. The Miami Heat just plain stink and the Wizards have yet to really jell. What you get is a division where the Orlando Magic sit atop the standings and the Charlotte Bobcats rest in 2nd place. Yes, the Bobcats team who wasn't expected to be that great to begin with and then lost Sean May and Adam Morrison for the season. Much like the NHL's southeastern division, an Atlanta team who is under .500 is merely one game back in the win column of the 2nd place team in the division. Granted, the Hawks' schedule was brutal to start the year, and 3-4 isn't exactly bad; but being 3-4 and just a game out of 2nd place definitely is. Considering the fact that, after their victory over the Bobcats on Wednesday night, the Hawks might be the favorite to actually finish 2nd in this division—improved as they may be—speaks volumes to how bad this particular division really is.

NFC South

Obviously football reigns supreme in the south—unfortunately, the majority of its professional teams do not. The NFC South is in close competition with NFC West for the title of worst division in football. The resurgence of the Arizona Cardinals and the steady play of the Seattle Seahawks, though, pretty much assure that the crown goes to the South.

IconThe New Orleans Saints rode last year's magical ride as far as they could and then got a quick dose of reality with their 0-4 start this season. Yes, they went on to win their next four games, only to again get brought back to earth as they became the first victim of the St. Louis Rams. At 4-5, though, the Saints sit merely a game out first place. How sad is it that a team can start the season 0-4, and then in a month be right back in the division title race and be in a position to pretty much control their own destiny? Not as sad as the fact that if the Atlanta Falcons beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday they will be merely a game behind the Bucs, with a game left to play against them. Now THAT is sad: A team can start 1-6, and just a month later be playing in a game where there are division title implications.

AFC South

Maybe the key for success in a division with the word "south" in the name is to have two of them in the same league. In the AFC South the Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars have shown to be playoff contending teams, with Jacksonville looking more and more like a potential serious threat to Indianapolis for the division title. So praise be to the AFC South. If it weren't for this "extra" division, the rest of the country's view of the South's sports teams would be much like its view of the south in general: inferior to everyone else, slower than everyone else, and the little brother that everyone gets to pick on. For goodness sake's, in NASCAR, as southern a sport as there is, a driver born in the southeast hasn't won a championship since Dale Jarrett did it—and that was in the 90's. Yikes.