sustaining the illusion of competitiveness

Over on the CT Daniel Davies compares the competitive structure of the Premier League with the American sports leagues. The usual critique of the Premier League is that only one or two teams have a real shot of winning a championship during any given year. The U.S. sports leagues by comparison are more volatile with teams moving in and out of contention for the league titles quite regularly.  Davies notes that once you limit the geographical size of the American leagues though, the number of teams in contention is quite similar to the number in the U.K. The difference between the two countries, then, is mostly about size – the United States sheer size gives them more large local fan bases than the U.K. does.  If the American leagues were to expand, giving an NFL team to every small city that could support a 5,000 person stadium, you’d see just as much concentration of winning in the U.S. Here is his summary:

I think my conclusion is that the American sports leagues achieve the illusion of competitiveness by severely restricting the number of teams – note that there is no promotion or relegation to the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL. The UK system should probably be seen as one in which the real league is the European one – the Champions League – but in which the minor-league teams are allowed to play against the major ones. I guess it’s something of a judgement call whether this is better or worse for the fans of non-Big-Four teams than a league in which they supported a team which had a chance of winning, but much less local connection to them (for example look at the geographical map of MLB support). It is true that there’s only four teams in the Premier League that have any realistic chance of winning, but there’s only three teams that have any chance of being the top NFL team in California, because it only has three teams.

I like Davies’s notion that the American sports leagues “achieve the illusion of competitiveness.” This, in fact, seems to be the major objective of their industry structure. Eric Leifer’s (here I go again, another Leifer post) underrated book, Making the Majors: The Transformation of Team Sports in America, describes how professional sports leagues in the U.S. created this illusion. The major achievement of American professional sports, he maintains, is the creation of a recurring drama of competition in which teams survive to fight another day, which gives local fans hope that next year will be their break-out year.

Behind the drama of victory and defeat, imposed by commentators and publics on the basis of differences of a few points, there is an underlying sameness and repetition. The drama of producing winners and losers is not a one-shot affair but a continuous process that strangely does not transform itself over time. Publics remain interested, leagues remain viable, owerns and teams remain hopeful throughout the repetitive process of producing winners and losers. This is a remarkable achievement, one that should provide continuing inspiration for organizers of all sorts (pg. 26).

The achievement rests on the ability of the leagues to eradicate the potentially poisonous effects of losing. Teams go through losing periods (if you’re  a Detroit Lions fan, you know how poisonous this can be), which has the potential to drive away fans. Even if leagues were to subsidize losing teams (as they do), continual loss of fan support is unsustainable. Leagues have to figure out how to keep fans coming even if their teams experience losing periods.

The greatest accomplishment of major leagues is not the dollars they take in, or the memorable players, teams, and games they have produced, but the way they have quietly accommodated losing…From the start, major leagues formed around the problem of improving the prospects of survival for a set of member teams across seasons. With every win producing a loss in closed circuits of competition, survival for the set of league teams rested on overcoming the destructiveness of so much losing (282).

Leifer argues that leagues did this in three main ways. First, they encapsulated competition in seasons, which allowed teams to accumulate some losses while still having the hope that they could “win” the big game at the end. Getting into the playoffs has become an intermediate measure of success, allowing more teams to leave the season as winners. Since there can only be one champion in the end, most of us judge the success of our team’s season on whether they made it to the playoffs that year. Second, the leagues promote competitive balance in myriad ways. Drafts limit competition among teams for outstanding new players and give bad teams hope that their team will experience a resurgence. Salary caps reduce the strain of smaller market teams in trying to compete for free agents. League owners are constantly devising new methods for limiting competition in this system of “millionaire socialism.” Third, the performance of competition is meant to convey that winning and losing is not due to random processes but is due to real differences in ability. Thus, losing can be seen as something that is correctable. The drama of competition also draws fans of even losing teams into the mix by giving them something to talk about during the off-season. Leifer’s point is that the role of “loser” is something that we’ve come to understand as necessary and in some ways honorable.

Leifer argues that if losing is going to be sustainable, the “illusion of competitiveness” must remain intact. This brings me to another point. Leifer intentionally leaves college sports out of his analysis because it has been perceived as amateur and therefore not subject to the same profitability standards of professional sports. But it’s becoming more and more difficult to argue that college sports really are amateur, especially for the top men’s team sports like football and basketball. As corporate sponsors and alumni donors become more invested in college sports (literally, we’re talking about big money here), the illusion of competitiveness is becoming more important. At the same time we’re seeing an increasing concentration of competition in the top sports programs in the country. College football fans are well aware of the BCS vs. non-BCS controversy. A few conferences have essentially come together to create their own football championship series that locks the vast majority of large universities out of serious competition. The past few seasons have proven that even an undefeated college football team from a non-BCS conference has no chance of getting invited to the “national championship.” The result of this monopoly has been the destruction of the illusion of competitiveness for the majority of college football fans (see corporate law professor Gordon Smith’s take). Fans have been outraged and non-BCS schools are taking legal action against the BCS. Even President Obama has expressed his concern about the unfairness of the system.

Leifer’s analysis would suggest that the BCS schools are doing themselves no favors in disallowing the other schools from competing. To reiterate, the most important aspect of the illusion of competitiveness is the achievement of sustainable losing. If losers don’t feel like they ever have a shot at winning, then the league is at risk of losing widespread fan support.  I think it’s safe to say that if college football is to maintain its current position as the top  spectator sport in the U.S., the NCAA needs to find some way to make the losers lose respectably.

Written by brayden king

May 28, 2009 at 2:55 pm

Posted in brayden, markets

10 Responses

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  1. Interesting post. To your point, though, I think its important to expand on the fact that competition in British football happens at both ends of the league table: on the top, you fight for the championship; on the bottom, you fight to stave off relegation to a lower league (those who are unfamiliar, essentially, they are fighting over staying in the major leagues vs. being pushed down into the minors for a year).

    I’ve always thought this is a very interesting innovation; fans of Wigan Athletic or Sunderland have no real shot at winning it all against Chelsae and ManUnited. But they can fight to the death to keep the right to play against those teams (and reap the associated revenues).

    It dovetails with a conversation I had yesterday with Matt Bothner about status and how actors at the bottom of a status hierarchy keep going; pushing forward (future post forthcoming). How, in this case, do teams that are consistently at the bottom of the hierarchy (and structurally pretty much guaranteed to stay there) keep a fan base?

    I guess part of the answer is that low status becomes an identity; something to rally around. (I wonder too if it has something to do with Britain’s relative comfort with class vs. the American ideal of a classless–perfectly socially mobile–society. Fans of lower status teams are sanguine or even comfortable with their station… Mary Douglas translated on to national sports models.) But to your point about the illusion of competition, the relegation battle is a tool in the arsenal.


    Sean Safford

    May 28, 2009 at 3:30 pm

  2. Following this argument, I suspect that the reason some other system (such as a playoff) hasn’t been implemented in college football is that the lower goals of going to a bowl game or winning a conference championship remain, sustaining the illusion of competitiveness for every non-BCS school that doesn’t have an undefeated record in any given year.



    May 28, 2009 at 3:58 pm

  3. Just another thought… linking to the post I had on health care. Mankiw starts off his post by trying to take the concept of “competitiveness” down a peg, citing this piece by Paul Krugman.

    Krugman’s point is basically, we’re all in this together… the world’s economy is not zero sum; we can all be winners. That may be true, but competition is motivating. Krugman argues that motivating it that way leads to distortions and he may be right. But nevertheless, maintaining the illusion of competitiveness is a soft power arrow an American President’s quiver (or, for that matter, in the quivers of public intellectuals like Reich, Thurrow and others Krugman was taking shots at). Its one way for them to shape the debate and motivate action.


    Sean Safford

    May 28, 2009 at 4:41 pm

  4. […] “Sustaining the illusion of competitiveness” – […]


  5. Re: Sean’s “I wonder too if it has something to do with Britain’s relative comfort with class vs. the American ideal of a classless–perfectly socially mobile–society…

    This (competition at both ends) is a characteristic of the continental football, not a feature of British football. It happens the same in all countries in Europe where football has a large following.
    Plus, speaking of class, proper British high class will not get involved with football, but with cricket or rugby.
    Yet, the question about teams at the bottom keeping their fans motivated is a very interesting one. Looking forward to see that post.



    May 29, 2009 at 12:09 pm

  6. I’m looking forward to that post too, Sean.

    Re low status actors: This seems like a great topic of analysis. Most of our research focuses on status attainment or on what actors do with status (e.g., cashing it in for social influence). You might think that low status would produce all sorts of pathologies and anxieties, and yet we don’t seem to see that at all. Perhaps it’s because, per Phillips and Zuckerman, low status actors don’t feel the pressure to conform or strive for anything at all or perhaps it’s because they define success quite differently than actors in the middle or upper strata.



    May 29, 2009 at 2:50 pm

  7. The issue of status mobility in football is also worth exploring further, particularly with regards to the dimension of out-sized risk that it adds. This really has no equivalent in American sports. Chelsea wasn’t always a contender for the Prem title, but became one via the enormously deep pockets of the current owner of the club, coupled with sound player acquisitions. The owners of Man City have similar aspirations, but have thus far seen no mobility up or down the table. Leeds United, now in League 1, sought to climb from middle class to upper class with disastrous results. My club, Newcastle United, got the drop this year, drowning the potential of its storied tradition and big-name, high priced players with the owner’s mismanagement of the front office and club finances.


    Eric Schwartz

    May 29, 2009 at 6:12 pm

  8. Frank’s (1985) observation that low performance and status actors are subsidized monetarily and otherwise for being “small fish in big ponds” is one explanation for these kinds of competitive inequality, but doesn’t tell the whole story. As a fan of a low-major D1 NCAA basketball team, I would happily take the roughly 302 straight beatdowns we’ve taken from BCS opponents (in addition to the guaranteed paydays that fund our athletic department, particularly in non-revenue sports, as per Frank) in exchange for one big upset, and maybe a brief mention on ESPN.

    Further, Andrew Zimbalist wrote that in the Premiership, blue-collar fans of “small fish” teams would often take the losses to the few dominant teams as part of a recreational ritual of self-flagellation. Despite that, games involving relegation from the Premiership are amongst the most passionate. While there’s huge monetary differences between the Premiership and Division One, fans of the team would clearly rather be a small fish in a big pond than to be sent to an inferior division, where they could enjoy the chance to compete for a championship. Put differently, they want to be put on one of Podolny’s best tombstones and associated with the “big names”, even if it was in 4-point font. Ironically, the big names derive their status from exploiting inferior actors, who then derive status from being merely associated with the “superstar.” No wonder boundaries are so important to preserving and insulating these symbiotic relationships (e.g., BCS).

    As a related, but opposing example, the emergence of “mid-major” powerhouses in college basketball (e.g., Memphis, Gonzaga, Drake, Butler) provide a case study of the competitive benefits of being a small fish in a big pond.

    I don’t always like using sports-related examples, because they tend to exclude people who don’t follow
    them. However, I think they convey empirical examples of these theoretical issues very well.



    May 29, 2009 at 7:44 pm

  9. On the BCS problem you’re failing to connect the matter to your core field of study.

    Yes, leagues gain by having an illusion of competition.

    But individual colleges don’t. An individual college gains significant prestige from burying other colleges. Its goal is to be a winner every year. And the greatest shame in college football is for a winning program to start losing.

    The behavior of colleges in football is closer to individual behavior in everyday life. The goal is to gain attention and glory.

    In this regard, it is not dissimilar from something like Wall Street. If a guy on Wall Street sees himself as big time winner, why should he care if the overall economy is screwed. In fact, he gains if the economy tanks, because now he is even more of a winner.

    The same thing applies in college football. No one at the University of Florida cares what happens to Boise State, as long as Florida continues to get trips to national championship games.



    June 4, 2009 at 5:40 pm

  10. […] sports is designed such to create the illusion of competitiveness is something I talked about in an earlier post. One of the primary ways that professional sports leagues do this is to reduce behavioral variety […]


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