Fair ball

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

I was watching New England pummel the Washington Redskins a few weeks back when my mom called me up on the phone.

“I don’t understand how you think this game is fairer than baseball,” she demanded, eager to dampen my vicarious glee. “The Patriots are just beating up everyone.”

While she may have been a total downer, my mom raised an interesting question.

How do we measure fairness across professional sports?

For the sake of argument, let’s take baseball and football. In my opinion, these two sports exemplify both ends of the fairness spectrum. On one end, you have the NFL. The league is the strongest of any American sport in terms of television ratings, and each of the 32 teams in the NFL operates under the same salary cap. Though there are certainly ways to manipulate the cap, for the most part it does a very good job of ensuring that all teams operate using the same amount of money to pay their players. Hence, teams that spend wisely and can identify and develop talent thrive. Additionally, revenue sharing, or the practice of splitting up the money gained through television contracts equally among all teams, ensures that no team gains an unfair financial edge.

Now let’s look at football’s little brother, baseball. It’s number two on the ratings chart, which isn’t too shabby. It’s got some revenue sharing policies of as well. However, the absence of a hard salary cap renders any revenue sharing moot. In theory, big markets like Los Angeles, Boston and New York should be dissuaded from gorging their nine-figure payrolls by the luxury tax MLB imposes on them to create a soft salary cap. In reality, these teams pay the slap-on-the-wrist fine and just keep dishing out the checks. How is a team like Tampa Bay, with a $24.1 million payroll, supposed to compete with the big spenders when the entire team makes less money than Alex Rodriguez?

At one end you have the NFL, a paragon of equality. At the other, MLB, where whoever has the biggest market has the best shot at winning. Ignoring the socialist-capitalist undertones of the comparison, it would seem that the NFL is hands down the fairer of the two, right?

Then why is it that every year there are teams in the NFL that win or lose over 80 percent of their games, but some of the best teams in baseball win barely over 60 percent? The best baseball team ever in the modern era, the 2001 Seattle Mariners, won 71.6 percent of their games (116-46), while just last season the San Diego Chargers won 87.5 percent of their matches (14-2) and nobody said anything. Never mind what the 2007 Patriots might be doing.

One could argue that the number of games played in a season is the cause for the disparity. If a football team plays only 16 games but a baseball team plays 10 times that many games (162), then baseball teams would tend to regress to the mean in terms of performance.

Shiny statistics sound nice, but I don’t buy into that argument. I think the reason for less differentiation among MLB teams than NFL teams is a direct result of the game of football being fairer. By fairer, I mean that the outcome of the games better reflect the skill of the teams. In baseball, great players have an on-base percentage somewhere in the ballpark of 37 percent. That means that the vast majority of the time they come to bat (63 percent or so), they fail. Mediocre batters, on the other hand, still tend to reach base about 29 percent of the time. In football a star quarterback like Peyton Manning completes 64 percent of his passes. Not-so-great quarterbacks still manage about 55 percent.

Ben, I get that you have a calculator, stop throwing numbers at me! Okay, maybe I did get a little stat-happy there. Here’s the point: In MLB, great and mediocre players fail the majority of their opportunities, whereas great and mediocre players in the NFL succeed at their job the majority of the time. So, setting some of the greater complexities of the games aside, it’s harder to get a hit than it is to complete a pass.

Maybe baseball is a harder game to play. Maybe if the NFL had 162 game seasons, team records would better resemble those of teams in MLB. Yet, the fact that some NFL teams consistently dominate while others are dominated might indicate that there is less randomness in the games. In other words, the fact that a team can dominate, with each team’s resources being equal, might be the strongest sign that the game reflects skill. The relative records of teams can be misleading in terms of identifying the health of the game.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that competition doesn’t indicate fairness.

Ben Singer ’09 learned how to use a calculator while writing this article.

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