By JASON MARTIN (July 13, 2018)
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said earlier this week that the “competitive balance” issue raised in some circles concerning his league’s predictability as a result of the recent dominance of the Golden State Warriors is not a problem. Certainly, there’s an argument to be made that the NBA Champion feels like a predetermined outcome at this stage, but there’s also that pesky fact that the Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Warriors three years ago and it took Golden State every bit of seven games to knock out the Houston Rockets in the 2018 Western Conference Finals.
That said, if you oppose the NBA blue bloods of today and use that as your excuse to avoid watching the Association, you do you brother. Silver also spoke about the possibility of seeding the playoffs 1-16 irrespective of conferences altogether, which is increasingly an idea that makes sense. Sure, sports is cyclical, but if you were to seed 1-16, the Celtics, the Sixers, the Raptors, and anybody else in the Eastern Conference worth making the playoffs STILL WOULD, so all you’d be cutting out are the bottom feeders on both sides.
But, the lack of supposed parity in the NBA led me to a question as to what sports fans really want as opposed to what they say they want, because those two answers are likely different when viewed through an objective lens. I’m going to use professional wrestling as my analogy, which should surprise very few who have any knowledge of my history in media and entertainment, but it applies beautifully here, as strangely enough, it often does.
Professional wrestling fans continually discuss how much they want to see the evil heel champion dethroned by the hero of the moment, or in the late 1990s, the antihero of the moment in Stone Cold Steve Austin. I’m not speaking of the wrestling fans of 2018, but instead the “real” fans that allowed for the suspension of disbelief in the industry and still hated the bad guys and loved the good guys. The lines have blurred and what was once purebred babyface has become a shade of grey, but general pro wrestling with protagonist and antagonist is what I want you to be thinking of as the baseline.
The point is fans want the heel champ to lose to their favorite so badly and as a result are willing to open up their wallets and spend their hard earned money to see it happen, only for it to be a rare occurrence. Add in the dastardly cheating underhanded bad guy that just couldn’t do it honestly and you feel like your guy got robbed, but continue shelling out to watch the jerk get his comeuppance.
I submit to you that people want to believe they want parity, but what they really want is the chase. The money is in the chase, and it’s in the Goliath that creates the David. If every team in the NFL could be described as average and relatively similar, that would be the worst possible thing to happen to Roger Goodell. The best outcome is for the New England Patriots to form a dynasty with a controversial, easy to hate on quarterback in Tom Brady and a disingenuous genius in Bill Belichick wearing the headset on the sideline.
An NFL fan outside of the Pats base can’t wait to see New England get beaten, but if they were able to separate the emotion long enough to analyze it, what they really want is to continue holding the feeling within them that they want the Patriots to lose. You don’t want them to lose. You want to KEEP wanting them to lose, but for it to be special and newsworthy when it does. It’s not anywhere near as interesting anymore if it’s common. It’s the law of diminishing returns. It’s the taste of the first donut and the decreasing enjoyment in the taste of any subsequent donut.
Thus, when you apply it to any sport, parity is an overplayed myth in terms of how people crave it in the audience. They don’t. It’s a complete illusion. Even those that say they want parity don’t, but they’re unable to realize it within themselves. Folks, the behemoths sell tickets, sell t-shirts, and generate interest, and they’re the ones that actually bring out the love and hate unlike anybody else can. Plus, there’s no lovable loser that finally gets over or there’s no up and comer that dethrones the king without the existence of regular winners and substantive royalty in the first place.
I root against Golden State relentlessly, but I also tune in to their games more than anyone else in the NBA, precisely for that very reason. It’s the Howard Stern effect, which was brought to life by Paul Giamatti’s work as “Pig Vomit” in Private Parts in 1997. “But, if they hate him, why do they listen?” The reply was simply, “Most common answer? I want to see what he’ll say next.” I want to see what Golden State does next to feed my vitriol towards their success and maybe, occasionally, somebody can get ’em and knock ’em down a peg for a day.
How much parity really exists in college football? For every random Boise State or Central Florida rise, there are always a few giants in each conference that find themselves in the preseason top ten and end up in a better bowl game in some cases than they deserve. Take a look at the Westgate lines that came out a few days ago from Las Vegas. SEC odds favor Alabama, Georgia, and Auburn, in that order. The Pac-12 favorites are Washington and USC, with Stanford in third. In the Big Ten, it’s Ohio State, Wisconsin, Michigan, Penn State, and Michigan State in the fifth slot. The Big 12 lines tilt first towards Oklahoma, Texas, TCU, and Oklahoma State, and the frontrunners in the ACC this year are, you guessed it, Clemson, Miami, Florida State, and Virginia Tech.
And guess what? GOOD! We have the usual, defined teams to watch in hopes or at least curiosity as to whether they might lose, where they rarely will, and thus our entertainment can continue because the chase can continue. There are minor changes in any sport that add necessary extra flavor, for example the rise of the Astros or the Royals, Kirby Smart’s early success at Georgia, or the strength of the Houston Rockets, but generally speaking, the guys at the top stay at the top until its time for a new cycle. Then, we see the Notre Dame or Los Angeles Lakers free fall, but that story then rewrites itself as the plot line shifts to, “Who can bring them back to prominence?” LeBron James comes to Los Angeles, and now we see if the Lakers cycle resets.
One final point about the falsity behind desired parity is that sports is indeed basically a novel. New volumes release in each discipline year after year. Think for a moment about the best season in the history of your favorite team, but make it one you were alive to experience. If I were to sit you down and ask you about that year and that team, you could recite to me the highs and lows, the big play that won the game you weren’t expecting to win, the triumph if it was a Championship or the moment where you realized the run was about to come to an end.
Having giants sitting atop the beanstalk is what enables the narratives to take shape, because there’s always someone waiting above to deal with. No action video game is any good without a great boss fight that tests your reflexes or your creativity. No Harry Potter book would be worth reading without a few spots where the Death Eaters and Voldemort got over on the heroes, setting the stage for the big victory down the road. There is no Luke Skywalker without Darth Vader, and guess what, there’s no Darth Vader without Luke Skywalker either.
No epic tale begins with the victory. It’s about the struggle. It’s about the chase. It’s about the journey or the quest and overcoming the obstacles on the path and learning about the characters along the way. We don’t realize when we watch sports that the best thing for us as fans is the last thing we tell ourselves we want.
I loathe the Golden State Warriors, can’t stand the New England Patriots, despise the New York Yankees, and want to wretch when I think about (insert whomever you’d like).
But, when I’m able to process and evaluate, I’m so thankful they, and those like them exist, because without the juggernaut enemy, sports would be a random collection of “the same,” and nobody REALLY wants that.
They just think they do.