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Competitive Balance!


As an addendum to Matt’s post, allow me to note from the frozen tundra of Alberta that the NHL offers us a good controlled experiment in the effectiveness of salary caps in terms of ensuring competitive balance, as it’s gone from a good free-market system to a hard cap after cancelling the 04-05 season. (As I’ve noted before, the fact that a team from a small Alberta city played a Sun Belt team in the first finals after the lockout was treated as a real benefit of the new regime, because of course no such thing could have happened in 03-04.) So let’s check in on the new parity by looking at how the traditional big markets are faring:

  • The Rangers, ghastly for years before the lockout, are 23-13-4 after two playoff appearances.
  • Philadelphia are right behind them at 20-10-7.
  • Boston, also a pretty bad team for the most part prior to the lockout, are 28-5-4. Let me repeat that: 28-5-4.
  • The Canadiens, Yankees of hockey, are 21-9-6.
  • Detroit, the Yankees of the post-Clinton Bush I era, are 24-7-5.
  • San Jose, with a large, wealthy market all to themselves, are 28-4-4.
  • Chicago, awful for the decade prior to the lockout, are 20-7-7.

If there’s parity or competitive balance there, I don’t see it. Sure, there are exceptions. Toronto, which may be the biggest market in hockey terms, suck, but they are what they were before the lockout: a thoroughly mediocre franchise whose pathetic fans seem to consider relevant because of an ersatz winning tradition derived from a period in which a six-team league guaranteed you some championships from the law of averages alone. Calgary, one of the smallest cities with a franchise, is 21-11-4, but since they play to 112% capacity it’s not really clear in what sense they’re a “small market” in the terms most relevant to the NHL. As Matt says, this isn’t to say that salary caps have no effect, just that they’re swamped by other factors. An analogy might be abortion prohibition: prohibition almost certainly reduces abortion rates, but because it’s so ineffective and because so many other factors are relevant, it’s common for countries with almost unregulated abortion to have much lower rates than countries with total bans.

One more comment from the thread. If you scroll down, you’ll see brother djw capably addressing most of the specious arguments, but I can’t resist bringing up one of my favorites from rec.sport.baseball — the “Cleveland Indians couldn’t keep all their stars” argument brought up to debunk the fact that baseball is the most competitive of the 4 major sports. Apparently, the fact that the Indians could only win 6 division titles in 7 years proves that baseball is hopelessly imbalanced and uncompetitive. You see, if baseball had true competitive balance…the same teams would win every single year for decades. If one were to take the various premises of the “socialism for billionaires” crowd seriously, as far as I can tell we would achieve “competitive balance” when about 20 teams win the World Series every year…

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