Long season? Less would be more
A modest proposal: Let's cut back on the length of our pro sports seasons.
On the eve of the season, Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig told a World Congress of Sports audience 2011 likely will be remembered for labor trouble. It's a safe statement, what with the NFL currently in lockout, the NBA torpedoing toward a summer of strife over its next collective bargaining agreement and the other two major professional sports leagues (NHL and MLB) monitoring the proceedings carefully for when their turns come over the next couple of years.
Money is always at the root of these issues -- before, during and after the moments of impasse. How should it be divided between the partners (the league and its players)? How can it be determined whether the two sides even are partners in the first place? Who is entitled to new revenue streams that will maintain the business of the sport well into the future?
But usually missing from the conversations is the state of the game itself -- on the field, on the court, on the ice -- as leagues and unions rarely take advantage of the opportunity to reform their sport's contours while they accommodate the economic forces in labor negotiations. And the one consistently unmentioned element of the game -- the length of each league's season -- requires the most discussion and action.
For the past 45 years, the length of seasons across all sports generally has increased as leagues have added new teams. Simultaneously, because the industry has become so lucrative, the leagues have expanded their playoffs to offer inclusion for more teams to receive postseason revenue and to satisfy a hungry television audience.
Currently, that model is a failure. Watch as the NBA slogs through its final regular-season weeks. Teams contending for a title are fearful of injury, disjointed and fatigued. The losers are going through the motions, desperate for it all to be over. The NBA season begins at the start of November (or even earlier, with a game or two around Halloween) and ends in mid-April. That's five-and-a-half months. The playoffs begin in mid-April and end in mid-June.
By the time the postseason is over, the two NBA Finals teams will have played an extra 36 percent of their regular seasons.
The NHL suffers from the same malaise.
We'll get to the NFL momentarily.
MLB, with its 162-game marathon and four-team playoff system, still has the most meaningful regular season. But the league is considering adding playoff teams and increasing the Division Series from five to seven games. If it does, the significance of the regular season will be diminished accordingly.
What is the point of playing so many games? In sports, less should be more. A shorter season likely would create greater competition, give each game greater urgency and generate greater interest from the fans. The players would play with greater intensity because fewer games would mean less travel and less fatigue (physical and mental) and thus less need for conservation of game-day energy -- all resulting in a higher quality of play.
Instead, we're seeing the opposite. The seasons are bloated, and the players are exhausted and exposed to charges that they sometimes don't give their best efforts. The competition and quality of the games in all of the pro leagues have been compromised for years by this trend. In MLB, that problem is exacerbated when important games are played in baseball-inappropriate weather in October and beyond, not to mention in late March or early April at the start of the long season.
Devouring dollars, the leagues have lost some of their sense of shape and purpose in that context.
Ostensibly, the reason for lengthening seasons was to provide ample opportunity for teams to earn the right to play for a championship, no excuses, no whining that a team is better than its record. As former utility infielder Tony Phillips used to say, "After 162 [expletive] games, that's what you are."
Now, expanded playoffs have lessened the necessity for a six-month regular season, and yet reforming the calendar has never quite gained traction. Since the recognition of the American and National Leagues as "organized baseball" in 1901, MLB has had two season lengths: 154 games (from 1901 to 1961) and 162 games since. Baseball has expanded its postseason three times during those periods, beginning with a five-game Championship Series in 1969. The series was expanded to seven games in 1985 and the league added wild cards 10 years later.
The NBA and NHL are the worst offenders. The NBA moved to an 82-game schedule in the 1967-68 season after it added the Chicago Bulls, Seattle Supersonics and San Diego Rockets to grow to 12 teams. Previously, as a nine-team league, the NBA played an 80-game schedule and, as an eight-team league in the 1950s, a 72-game schedule.
And even in those days, the NBA's regular seasons sometimes lacked import. Of the eight teams in the league in the '50s, six (75 percent) made the playoffs. In 1959, when the Celtics began their dynastic run, three of the six playoff teams were under .500. The Detroit Pistons "battled" their way into the playoffs with a 28-44 record. For the title, the Celtics swept the Minneapolis Lakers, who earned their Finals appearance after a 33-39 record in the regular season.
Back then, the first-place team in each of the two four-team divisions received automatic entry into the conference finals, while the first-round "semifinals" consisted of a best-two-of-three series between the second- and third-place finishers. The Celtics won eight straight championships from 1959-66, needing to win only one seven-game series to reach the Finals.
The modern NBA is no better. The league now consists of 30 teams and 16 make the playoffs, but the expansion of the postseason -- from a best-of-three to a best-of-five to a seven-game first round -- coupled with the power of television to lengthen the tournament by requesting specific play dates has turned the playoffs into a two-month affair. The playoffs are a second season that renders the original virtually meaningless after the first two weeks following the All-Star break, leaving fans to pay to essentially watch world-class athletes conserve energy before the important games begin.
For two years in the early 1990s, the NHL went from 80 games to 84 while 69.5 percent of the teams (16 of 23) made the playoffs. Pure lunacy. Since the folding of teams during the Great Depression and World War II left hockey with just the "Original Six" in 1942, the NHL has gradually increased its season -- from 50 games to 60 in the mid-1940s to 70 in 1950 and then to 74 when the league expanded in 1967. Like the NBA, the NHL postseason undermines the interminably long regular season.
Pro football's schedule, meanwhile, might appear to be a beacon of sanity, with only 12 of 32 teams earning the postseason after 16 grueling games. But now the NFL is seeking an 18-game schedule, during the Age of the Concussion. Instead of separating itself from the others, the NFL's lust for more games looks like another example of the greed, cynicism and hypocrisy that helped shut down the game last month.
The quality of the games suffers, but at least the cash rolls in, right? Or does it? Money arguments do not often track without more data, and the right data is difficult to accumulate and analyze when leagues don't open their financial records to the public. Opposition to shortening seasons has traditionally been based around the argument that fewer home dates will restrict revenue. But it also stands to reason that teams losing money -- as owners of many teams in each league say they are, presumably due to the combination of high operating costs and lower revenue intake (low local television revenues and low attendance) -- might actually increase revenue in a consolidated season. Fewer home games ostensibly would create more demand, which could spur attendance.
The flaw in this logic, naturally, is that teams probably aren't losing money as they claim. And many teams benefit so greatly from their sweetheart stadium deals with the cities in which they play that they could possibly make money when they keep their player payroll down, despite low attendance figures. (See: Pirates, Pittsburgh, who have earned roughly $100 million from baseball's revenue-sharing system over the past four years, or Indians, Cleveland, who drew a "crowd" of 9,025 against the Red Sox on Tuesday.) Teams receive so much free money in the form of public stadium construction, favorable leasing, lending conditions and revenue sharing that many could probably make money in an empty stadium.
The weak link is the public money that private clubs receive. If the Pirates were responsible for earning money back for PNC Park, the club might have a greater urgency to win. Here, the owners are not the real villains. That role goes to state and local governments, which give taxpayers' money to the private sports industries without demanding accountability in return.
During the 2009 and 2010 World Series, conversations intensified about the possibility of some radical changes, including reducing the regular season back to 154 games to accommodate a seven-game division series. But union officials believe ownership will never eliminate home dates. November baseball, it is generally agreed, is bad for the sport, but we've seen games played that late in the calendar year recently. (This season, for the first time in years, the World Series thankfully will end before Halloween, even in the event of a seven-game championship.)
The players in all the major sports have long contended that ownership does not care about the quality of play, only the profits it can squeeze out of the athletes. Based on how the NFL is behaving and the languid play we see during the doldrums of an NBA or NHL season, it is a hard position to argue. A 60-game NHL or NBA regular season wouldn't save the New Jersey Nets or Washington Wizards, but it would create higher energy in the postseason and prolong more than a few careers.
Kobe Bryant will enter this postseason having appeared in 198 playoff games, the equivalent of 2.41 NBA regular seasons. Derek Jeter has played in 147 postseason games, essentially a full season tacked on to his career.
If the regular seasons are to matter, they should be shortened to give the fans their money's worth. If postseasons are going to have real value, the leagues should contract the regular seasons to allow players to have maximum energy to perform in the most important games.
In the case of pro sports, less could be so much more.
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