- Howard Bryant, ESPN Senior Writer
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On Sunday, the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers engaged in a rarity: a regular-season NBA game that actually mattered to both teams. The Celtics' important road win was heightened by the specter of their tense, shared history and the tantalizing projections of what could occur should both meet in the NBA Finals for a third time in four years.
The Celtics-Lakers vibe, which for drama and imagination, overwhelmed that of the star-driven but team lacking Heat-Thunder matinee. The Boston-Los Angeles resurgence has restored a sense of balance and belonging to a league that has believed that the wattage of marquee names (Michael, LeBron, etc.) and the novelty of new markets (Miami, Orlando, Toronto) could carry it. But in the end, the NBA has never been as vital as when its two greatest teams with the most championships and most history are playing their best.
The combination of a traditional power's lineage and success creates a sense of dynasty for any league. Although Green Bay and Pittsburgh aren't at all linked as rivals, this past weekend's big-stage, big-team basketball provided the perfect appetizer for Sunday's Super Bowl. The throwback tangle of venerable franchises and names recalls the hallowed pillars of the sport, from Lambeau to Rooney, Lombardi to Noll, Starr to Bradshaw, and it returns the NFL to its roots.
A Super Bowl of flagship franchises comes with professional sports leagues at a critical stage: Basketball and football are in labor crisis, hockey is in labor transition and baseball turns each calendar year owning a curious, complicated relationship with parity. The notion of a handful of dominant franchises carrying a sport is at its own crossroads. The rule of the giants is seemingly over, something welcomed by once-marginalized teams and fan bases but that comes at the cost of an important component of the leagues' identities. The Steelers and Packers offer another reminder of why legendary franchises are so special.
Football, with its orchestrated parity through socialism -- a heavy salary cap and virtually equitable revenue sharing -- has essentially enjoyed two histories: the era of titans that continued past the 1970 merger and today's model of power sharing, where a champion can be born and unborn in a single season. The Steelers and Packers won six of the first 14 Super Bowls, and six teams won 15 of the first 19 Super Bowls (four titles for Pittsburgh, three for Oakland/Los Angeles, two apiece for Green Bay, Dallas, Miami and San Francisco). To underscore the point that the NFL was once dominated by the fortunate few, just 10 teams (Dallas, Minnesota, Pittsburgh, Oakland, Miami, Washington, Green Bay, Kansas City, Baltimore and San Francisco) filled 33 of the first 38 Super Bowl spots.
However, football has since gambled, and won, on the idea that its strength lies in the love of the sport and does not require an America's team to maintain the audience's attention. Since Super Bowl XXXIII in 1999, championship play has been for everyone. Eight teams -- the Falcons, Titans, Ravens, Buccaneers, Seahawks, Cardinals, Saints and Panthers -- have earned first-time Super Bowl berths, with three winning.
During the years between Super Bowl XX and Super Bowl XXXII, first-time teams reaching the Super Bowl were a rarity without much success. Only five -- New England, the New York Giants, Chicago, Buffalo and San Diego -- played in their first Super Bowl with only two, the Giants and Bears, actually winning.
Interest and TV viewership has grown through the Super Bowl era, but there's a special buzz whenever a storied franchise returns after an extended absence (such as the Cowboys versus Steelers in 1996 and the Packers the following year). Big franchises capture the imagination. They drive the sport -- Red Sox-Yankees, Celtics-Lakers, Ohio State-Michigan-style -- and create memories and literature, but the business of sport requires inclusion, both of the big and small markets. The NFL has succeeded at a very difficult dynamic: allowing its small-market flagships to still enjoy dominance in an era of big money.
That Pittsburgh and Green Bay are playing for a championship in 2011 validates perhaps the most important decision in NFL history, made decades earlier by Pete Rozelle. In the 1960s, as the sport was beginning its ascent, the league had a choice: package its television deals nationally and split the local revenue that teams generate through gate receipts or follow the free-market approach of baseball.
In one of the greatest examples of Rozelle's vision and negotiating skill -- as well as the understanding among owners that the survival of all meant the survival of each -- the league ultimately adopted the former option, a 60-40 revenue split of local monies and an even split of national television and advertising contracts. The biggest reason for this compromise was to preserve the viability of the Packers. The deal had to be sold heavily to New York Giants owner Wellington Mara, who knew at once that the agreement would thwart the tremendous advantage of owning a team in the country's greatest media market.
The result was undeniable. The Packers went on to win the first two Super Bowls and have been a healthy business ever since. The Giants, who had played in six NFL title games between 1956 and 1963, didn't make a Super Bowl until 1986. Had football chosen the free market, it is highly unlikely that two small markets, Pittsburgh and Green Bay, would be playing for a championship in 2011. Just take a look at their baseball counterparts, the Pirates and Brewers.
The NFL has mastered a difficult dance: inclusion of new franchises into the championship mix while maintaining its powerful sense of history and providing the opportunity for fan bases to believe.
In the Super Bowl era, 87.5 percent of NFL teams (28 of 32) have played for a championship, second only to baseball's 93 percent (28 of 30, only the Mariners and Nationals have never reached the World Series). Even when baseball is adjusted to the previous quarter century, it has had more of its teams appear in the World Series (80 percent since 1986) than football (75 percent).
But where football wins is in the arena of hope. In perhaps the truest mirror of America, baseball may have more parity than it appears, but it certainly also has more hopelessness. The Detroit Lions have a better chance to win a Super Bowl next season than the Pirates. The Patriots and Jets have less of a financial advantage over their league than the Red Sox and Yankees, who have outdistanced their MLB foes in revenue and spending (putting them in contention even in the years they don't win the World Series).
Maybe hope is an illusion. Baseball has a permanent underclass. Football doesn't.
In the past 10 years, baseball has had nine different champions (only the Red Sox of 2004 and 2007 won twice) while the NFL has had seven. Still, this Super Bowl of legendary teams shows the NFL's remarkable versatility. It has achieved both financial and competitive parity while entering a new decade with its legacy franchises leading the way.
Howard Bryant is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He is the author of "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," "Shut Out: A Story of Race and Baseball in Boston" and "Juicing the Game: Drugs, Power and the Fight for the Soul of Major League Baseball." He can be reached at Howard.Bryant@espn.com. He can be followed on Twitter at www.twitter.com/hbryant42.
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