It is the twenty-first century, and things have changed in the sporting world. Perhaps it began with the Olympic ideal being compromised by the likes of the Soviet Union’s use of “professional” athletes or the sadly inevitable decision by the International Basketball Federation to allow pros to compete in the 1992 Games.
Either way, the money has taken over the spirit of competition everywhere to the point we have to question the validity of outcomes in Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Football League. What we are left with as the last bastion of integrity, perhaps, in pro sports is the National Hockey League.
Who would have predicted that 25 years ago?
The NHL always has been the least-popular major sport in North America, mostly because a lot of American fans are not into it. As comedian Chris Rock once quipped, “Hockey is like heroin. Only drug addicts do heroin. It’s not like a recreational drug. It’s never like, ‘No, that’s okay, I’m not going to have heroin. You guys go right ahead.’ Hockey is kind of the same way. Only hockey fans watch hockey.”
Yet it is the NHL that remains relatively free of corruptive/cheating scandals and has the closest thing to a real salary cap, making it the most freely competitive sport as well. Hockey may be the only pro sport where we know the champs are not fueled by PEDs, demonstrably guilty of cheating, and have not been aided by officials doing the league’s will for television ratings.
To wit, the Boston Red Sox and the San Francisco Giants went 142 combined seasons without winning the Series, and then after having their players plastered throughout the BALCO and Mitchell investigations, the two teams somehow won seven of next 14 Series. It is hard to think that was a mere coincidence, especially in light of those two cities’ issues explored here before now.
Of course, the problems in pro football are well known and perhaps do not need more explanation here. The NFL is dying a slow death, via its own greed and neglect, which might be a metaphor for the entire nation if one wants to think that deeply right now (and we do not blame you if you do not).
As for pro hoops, well … there are several reasons we have not watched the league since the mid-1990s. One of them is named Dick Bavetta, and another is named Tim Donaghy. A lot of them have to do with officiating, TV revenue, and “popular” outcomes. The first needs no discussion, while the second is a little more interesting.
The NBA peaked in the 1980s and with Michael Jordan, and since the TV ratings have been mediocre at best, despite all the hype you may read about in the sport itself. The 1998 Finals remain the most-watched event ever in league history, thanks to Jordan, drawing almost a 19 share of households in the U.S.
For comparison, none of the last four Finals involving the Golden State Warriors and the Cleveland Cavaliers has earned even a 12 share. The 2003 and 2007 Finals, both involving the small-market San Antonio Spurs against small TV-market squads from New Jersey and Cleveland, respectively, barley earned 6 shares.
(Of course, the international appeal of those Spurs teams [thanks to France’s Tony Parker, Argentina’s Manu Ginóbili, et al] meant the NBA made plenty on overseas advertising revenue.)
Since Jordan’s first retirement, every NBA Finals has included at least one team from a major metropolitan TV market, save those two Spurs examples above. That is not a coincidence, when combined with the Bavetta/Donaghy issues above—and public sentiment for something like the Cavs’ 2016 championship victory over the Warriors. This is why you will never see a Memphis/Portland final in the NBA, guaranteed.
That leaves us with the NHL, where TV ratings remain low, and there are no officiating issues. There are no cheating dynasties, PED scandals, or integrity issues with hockey. There is just sport: There is more variety in the NHL’s list of league champions than in any other league, in terms of TV market size and regional diversity.
Consider that teams like the Carolina Hurricanes, the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Tampa Bay Lightning have won Stanley Cups in the last two decades, and you see an honest and realistic sharing of opportunity. There are no cheating, drug, or officiating scandals to taint the results in the NHL, period.
We have started boycotting the Super Bowl, and we haven’t watched the NBA Finals in decades. The World Series took a turn for the worst this century, too. Yet give us the Stanley Cup playoffs every year, now and forever—or until the corruption reaches Canada, too.