Here’s the great contradiction about parity in the NFL: it’s simultaneously making the league more exciting and more boring.On a game-by-game level, the new order of the NFL — where nearly all 32 teams are some shade of average — makes for thrilling viewing.
Any team can win any game. No team is so good that they can’t blow a big lead. No team is so bad that they won’t make things competitive at some point. The volume of competitive games increases, and likelihood of the game on your TV this Sunday being “good” (aka “close”) is higher than it would be under league-wide inequality.
Uncertainty is one of the most important factors is getting people to watch sports — and NFL TV ratings back that up.
But on the other hand, the randomness that parity produces makes the league way less fun to follow. A big part of following sports is following narratives. Following LeBron James wasn’t just about watching him on a Wednesday night against the Bobcats, it was about seeing the narrative build over months and years, and being there when the long journey finally reached its climax on the court in the Finals. It’s simply harder for rich narratives like that to develop under league-wide sameness.
Yes, the games themselves are thrilling, but ultimately every team is hurtling inevitably toward 8-8, so what’s the point?
According to the Wall Street Journal, in a hypothetical 32-team league where all teams have a 50-50 shot at winning every game, you would have ~10 teams with 3-3 records through six weeks. There are 11 teams with 3-3 records this year.
Overall, only three of 32 teams have more than four wins after six weeks. Only six out of 32 teams have less than two wins after six weeks, and everyone else is in coin-flip territory.
What these stats mean in a narrative sense is this: There are no villains, there are no plucky underdogs, there is no overcoming great odds because the odds are perpetually fixed at the ratings-inducing 50-50.
We try to shoehorn teams into old narratives, but it doesn’t work. The Patriots are considered a juggernaut, even though they have the same record as the Jets, who are considered the NFL’s biggest failure. The Eagles are considered a lost cause, destined to failure, yet they’re one game back in the NFC East.
The Falcons are undefeated, but two of those wins came on last-second field goals against the Panthers and Raiders. The Texans just got blown out by the Packers at home. The Packers have lost three games already after only losing once last year. The 49ers are 4-2 and can only win if they get the lead early. The Ravens are crippled on defence and only beat the Cowboys last week because Jason Garrett is horrible at clock management. The Bears have the Jay Cutler. The Giants lost two games in their division already, one to the Eagles.
And these are supposed to be the good teams. They’re not. They can all lose to each other and 20 other teams in the NFL.
That’s awesome for seven hours every Sunday — when we’re overwhelmed by amazing ending after amazing ending. But in a broader sense, it kills the league every other hour of the week.
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