Surprise! NFL is more competitive than most pro leagues

I was sick, too, of seeing New England in the Super Bowl. But the U.S. football league has featured more different teams in big games than baseball, basketball and soccer.

There was much grumbling about New England being in the Super Bowl again. That’s five times in the past decade and nine times since 2002.

Some see that as a lack of equal opportunity in the NFL or an easy path for the Patriots in what has been the worst division in most recent years. But as far as featuring different teams in big games, if you look at the past ten Super Bowls, you will find that more teams have appeared in the NFL’s biggest game than that of pro baseball, basketball and soccer. And in hockey, it’s a tie, though more NFL teams have won the big game or series.

League … Teams in title games last decade ………… Different winners
NFL ………………….. 14 ………………………………………….. 8
NHL………………….. 14 ……………………………………..…… 5
MLB………………….. 13 ………………………………………..… 7
MLS………………….. 12 ………………………………………..… 8
NCAAMensBBall……. 12 ………………………………………..… 6
NBA…………………… 9 ………………………………………….. 6
Mens World Cup*……. 8 ………………………………………..... 6
Womens World Cup*… 7 …………………………………………. 4
EPL UK Soccer……….. 7 ………………………………………….. 4
*Last ten title games for men played every four years; women have only had seven total World Cups

The NFL has also spread its biggest stage around to more teams than college football, which is effectively a pro minor league where the coaches and administrators get paid more than their pro counterparts in many cases [same goes for college basketball]. But since college football has only had an actual championship game for five years that has been dominated by Alabama, that’s not an accurate comparison that can be included in the above chart.

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Photo by Larry Bridges/ Unsplash

More NFL teams that hadn’t won a title in at least a decade have done so than in the MLB, NBA, NHL and college basketball. The Eagles’ Super Bowl win last year was their first in franchise history. Same goes with the Seahawks in 2014 and Saints in 2010. Those were great stories.

Baseball had some nice stories, such as the Cubs winning a World Series for the first time in more than a century in 2016 and Astros taking their first title in 2017. In hockey, the Capitals [2018] and Kings [2012] won their first Stanley Cups.

Contrast that to the NBA, where the only big surprise in the past decade has been the Mavericks winning their first title in franchise history as a third seed in 2011. Okay, the Cavs beating the Warriors in 2016 for their first title was interesting as well, though not as big an upset as the Mavs upending the Heat’s Big Three.

But the same two teams have appeared in the NBA Finals the past four seasons, and the Warriors will likely win it again this year. No wonder the TV audience for the NBA Finals has declined since 2015 and especially since the 1998 peak.

British soccer has been even less competitive than the NBA, with the English Premier League only having four different champions in the past decade. Manchester City, Chelsea, and Manchester United have each won three titles in that time. The World Cup and U.S. MLS have shared the big stage wealth more than the Brits.

Competitive balance in a league, of course, can have different meanings. Some are content with their teams merely making the playoffs or even having a winning record, rather than playing in a finals game or series. That’s fine, but I think most fans want to see their teams in the finals at least once in their lifetimes.

Others have tabulated the number of different final four appearances by teams, along with more calculations. The end result hasn’t changed much — the NBA is still less competitive than the NFL, NHL and MLB, with the latter threesome about the same.

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