Sports in America: Four Ways MLB, NBA, and NFL Differ from the Rest of the World
Let's face it, Americans love their sports. We need our sports. Crave them. We live our lives in close, blissful (or not so blissful) harmony with our favorite leagues, teams, and athletes.
The status quo for the American sporting culture is set, and it's not changing anytime soon. But as Americans spend their year dividing up their time between the big three leagues, we often forget that there's still a whole world out there, and we don't exactly constitute its entirety.
Nor do we constitute its majority. And neither do our sports. Here are four ways that the most popular sports outside the U.S. are vastly different from our own, and why it could mean we're falling tragically behind in the biggest international competitions without even knowing.
Playoffs? Don't Talk About Playoffs!
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And don't get me started on them, either. What a fantastically well-devised scheme to ensure that a team's regular season-record is entirely meaningless, so long as they finish...oh...top 12...ish...sort of.
Hell, on some occasions, you might finish well within that range, and still get beaten out by a team who can't even be bothered to achieve a winning record (see: Seattle Seahawks).
The most common complaint leveled against the common playoff format hits the nail right on the head: it takes away from the legitimacy of the season by allowing the title to be won by whichever team happens to be hot in the last handful of games.
That's why most of the rest of the world doesn't bother with them. The most popular sports outside of America tend to rely on a full-season points system.
For example, most rugby leagues award points in the overall standings depending on performance: four points for a win, two for a draw, and maximum of two bonus points for accomplishing certain requirements.
In most soccer leagues, it's three points for a win, and one for a draw. And, of course, zero for a loss.
So who wins the championship title in this system? The answer is whoever has the most points in the standings at the end of the regular season, which eliminates the problem of mediocre teams winning titles just for being on a last minute hot-streak, and rewards the team with the greatest season-long production.
And, if you happen to be the New Orleans Saints, you know that this beats the hell out of getting eliminated by the Seahawks in the first round and having to watch a bunch of greasy-haired, rain-soaked Seattleites acting as though they had a better season.
Of course, this only works when every team is competing on equal footing, which brings us to...
No Conferences, No Divisions
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Major League Baseball is divided into two leagues, American and National, each consisting of three divisions that battle amongst themselves for a playoff spot. The NFL has a similar setup, this time with two conferences, each consisting of four divisions.
The NBA has the exact same setup as MLB, except they call theirs conferences too. Which begs the question: why does Major League Baseball insist on pretending their conferences are "leagues?"
But that's beside the point. What each of these formats have in common is this: since you are competing primarily within your division for a playoff spot, and secondarily within your conference, your schedule will be heavily weighted towards competing against those opponents.
So, if you're primarily playing within one division, and that division is extraordinarily weak in comparison to others, your division could produce a much weaker playoff contender than, say, the second or third placing team in another division ("wild card" rules are often implemented to counter this, but not always successfully).
Plus, you'll never truly have a reliable gauge of how your team ranks amongst all the others when they are not all playing the same opponents equally, and some not at all.
Most Americans wouldn't necessarily think twice about this, or see it as a significant problem, especially in a sport like football where playing against all opponents in the most fair setting available (one home, one away) would be unrealistic given the high rate of injury.
But in many sports around the world, they do see it as a problem, and conferences and divisions are eliminated entirely to allow every team to primarily compete against...every other team. No bias. No weighted schedules.
No impulse to only care what four or five other teams geographically close to you are doing in the standings. It's every team for themselves, and the title goes to whoever fared the best against everyone involved in the competition.
Unfortunately, this format works best for smaller leagues with fewer teams. So heavily populated leagues like the NBA (30 teams), the NFL (32 teams), and Major League Baseball (30 teams) would probably find this much less ideal than their current formats.
If only there was a well-structured method of controlling and limiting league populations...
Promotion and Relegation
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Oh wait, there is!
This one can be found in a wide variety of soccer and rugby leagues throughout the world, and has become so common that it's amazing that some variation of it hasn't wormed its way into the American sports culture.
You would be hard-pressed to find a soccer league anywhere in the world that doesn't utilize a promotion/relegation system, unless that soccer league happens to be -- you guessed it -- America's own Major League Soccer.
To explain this one, allow me to draw an analogy to a well-known example in the U.S. You know how sometimes on a sunny summer day you and your buddies get together and go out to the ballpark to down a few beers and watch your favorite Major League Baseball team? You do? Good.
Now, you know how sometimes on other days (maybe when the MLB club is in the middle of a ten-game road trip or something) you go to a smaller, crappier ballpark, drink cheaper and less tasty beer, and watch the local triple-A farm team instead? Still with me? Okay.
You know those days when you're really out of luck, and get dragged to the double-A park to watch some nobodies throw a baseball with a total of like 12 people in the bleachers? Okay, you got me on that one. Almost nobody knows what that's like.
Promotion and Relegation systems are like that, except those farm teams are a lot less like farm teams, and a lot more like competitive entities in real leagues fighting for a legitimate prize. That prize? Promotion into the next highest league.
In England, for example, the highest competitive soccer league is the English Premier League, which always has 20 teams. The next league down (or the second tier) is called the Football League Championship. Below that there are still two more tiers consisting of competitive clubs recognized by the governing body in charge of all competitions.
At the end of the season, while the top team in the first tier is crowned champions of English soccer, the bottom three teams face a very bitter reality: they will be relegated to the second tier for the next season.
Meanwhile, the top two teams from the second tier will be promoted to the ultimate honor of eligibility to compete in the Premier League (and I lied, because the third team to be promoted actually is determined by a short playoff-style competition).
While it is an extreme rarity, it is actually possible for a fourth tier club to battle their way (over a minimum of three years) to the top-level of competition.
To put this into perspective, promotion and relegation would be like the Seattle Mariners finishing dead last in Major League Baseball, and being usurped by the Tacoma Rainiers for their spot in the American League West. Which, admittedly, many Seattle fans would not object to seeing.
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Let's continue using the Major League Baseball example for this one.
Quick, when I say "evil, corporate, extraordinarily and frustratingly wealthy baseball team that wins far too often in a competition where theoretically you should only win an average of once every thirty years," who do you think of? The Cubs, right? Oddly enough though, polls suggest that most people would say the Yankees. So let's run with that.
There's no question why everybody hates the Yankees (see: everything I just said). But what if every one of those reasons didn't matter. Could you even imagine such a scenario?
That scenario exists on every continent in the world. Including Antarctica. Okay, not Antarctica.
Let's say the Yankees win the World Series again this year, for a record 259th friggin' time (or something). This would be extremely frustrating under most circumstances, but what if that wasn't all there was?
What if there were dozens of other countries right next door, all with similarly competitive baseball leagues, and all with their very own version of the New York Yankees?
And what if winning the World Series in America was just the first step to qualifying for entry into a specialized, extremely talented league composed of nobody but the respective winners of all of those leagues in all of those countries.
What if our New York Yankees had to, year after year, also prove themselves against 32 other New York Yankees for the most respected title in world baseball?
What if, instead of just kidding ourselves and calling it a "world series," it actually became a real international, worldwide competition?
Of course, that doesn't happen in baseball, since there are so few nations that follow the sport as closely as America, none of which have a league anywhere near as competitive as Major League Baseball. The scenario I described instead occurs every year in European soccer.
Similar situations occur annually between the winners of the national leagues of each continent, making a grand total of six Champions League competitions each year, producing six regional champions that eventually go head to head for the world title in the FIFA Club World Cup.
Meanwhile, in America we think we're vastly intertwined with the international community because sometimes we let Canada play. Go figure.