Parity in the NFL

Who could have seen this happening? (SPORTS ILLUSTRATED)

Parity is always a strong selling point for the NFL, a league where a team can go from worst to first very quickly (unless you’re the Browns) with a few right decisions. Compare that to the NBA, where it seems like there are always a couple teams that dominate the league for a decade at a time. We took a closer look at whether the NFL (along with the NHL and MLB) was really that much further along than the NBA when it comes to parity in the championship round.

Right away you can look at last year as an example of this. The Heat won the NBA title for the second consecutive time, as well as reaching the NBA Finals for the third time in a row. On the other hand, the Seahawks won the Super Bowl for the first time in team history while facing a team that hadn’t won the title since 1995. Adding in the other two leagues gives us a couple of repeat winners in the Red Sox and Blackhawks. The Red Sox have been to the World Series three times since 2004 and the Blackhawks also won the Stanley Cup 2010. It looks like in the most recent years, the NFL is quite even and many teams have the opportunity to win it all in any given year. I took a look at the championship round in every league over the last 15 years, and this is what it looks like:

Super Bowl – 18 teams, 10 winners

Stanley Cup Finals – 18 teams, 11 winners

World Series – 16 teams, 9 winners

NBA Finals – 13 teams, 6 winners

The Super Bowl and Stanley Cup Finals tie with 18 different teams participating, with the NHL having one more team actually winning it all. The World Series isn’t that far behind, but the NBA Finals is quite far before the rest. Only six different teams have won a championship in the NBA since 1999 — the San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks, Boston Celtics, and Detroit Pistons. The Heat, Spurs and Lakers have won 12 of the 15. Part of the reason is that rules in the NBA make it much easier to build a dynasty-type team, so players tend to stick around teams for longer (outside of LeBron James).

So what makes the NFL different? Non-guaranteed contracts make it easy for teams to part ways with players if they aren’t performing or are injured more often than not. Teams are able to rebuild when they lose players, and the draft is ripe with more more talent that you’ll see in the NBA. In the end, it could just boil down to the sport itself. Injuries are such a big part of the game, and when a team is decimated by them in the middle of the season, a good run a form could put an unlikely team in the driver’s seat. We’ve seen teams like the Baltimore Ravens and New York Giants come out of nowhere to win Super Bowls, both with the odds heavily stacked against them. It’s part of the allure of the NFL, and a big reason why it’s this country’s most popular sport by a landslide.

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