Former NFL Commissioner Bert Bell envisioned a league where the difference between good and bad teams was slim and any team could beat any other.
We call this parity. Which sports leagues have the most parity? In some sports, like college basketball, it seems nearly impossible to predict the champion. Others, like the NBA, seem to be decided before the season even begins.
All sports leagues implement many measures to maintain parity like the salary cap or a draft order based on last season’s standings. College sports have recruiting rules and scholarship limits. Without this help from the league, small market teams would get outspent and out-recruited by the big boys (even more than they already do).
Despite the best effort by commissioners to make their league winnable by any team, dominant dynasties or “superteams” are very common in sports and often restrict realistic title chances to only a couple of the league’s strongest teams.
Sports with fewer players in the game at one time – like basketball – lend themselves very well toward dynasties. It only takes a couple of good players to dominate the court when you are playing 5 on 5.
Sports like football or baseball see less sustained success because there are far more players with major roles in the game, making it much more difficult to get them all clicking.
The size of the league also matters. There are 347 D1 college basketball teams that are competing for the same title each spring. You are going to have a lot of competition at the top with this many schools going head-to-head.
In contrast, the WNBA has only 12 teams. Far less competition.
Take a look at that picture of 8 logos above. Those are this year’s winners of the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, CFB, CBB, WNBA, CFL, and EPL. Only one of those teams is a repeat champion from last year – Man City. That’s pretty good parity right there.
I want to analyze the distribution of championships across those 9 leagues to determine which leagues are dominated by a couple of elite teams and which are wide open.
This is a study of the parity of championships across sports. Let’s dig in!
The 4 Major US Sports
Baseball (MLB), football (NFL), basketball (NBA), and hockey (NHL) are the 4 major US sports. I would wager that 99.9% of sports fans in the US follow at least one of these 4 leagues.
I’ll begin by breaking down the MLB. You may not know it from watching baseball over the past 15 years, but the New York Yankees have been the most dominant baseball team in history since their first championship in 1923.
New York has won more rings than the 2 next-highest teams combined. After the Yankees, Cardinals, Red Sox, A’s, and Giants, there is a bit of a dropoff. Here is a visual.
Baseball has the reputation of a game with tons of inherent randomness. If there is so much randomness, why do the same teams keep winning over and over?
The 162-game schedule has a lot to do with it. Losing a couple of 50/50 games over a 16-game NFL season can devastate your playoff chances. A couple of bad breaks will typically not be life or death over the long haul of the MLB schedule.
The MLB playoffs are also geared toward good teams, especially those with good starting pitching. A 7-game baseball playoff series allows your ace starting pitcher to throw up to 3 times (or 4 if you’re Madison Bumgarner). This creates a major advantage over weaker teams.
Consider the NFL playoffs. Each game is win or go home. There is no room for error. Even good teams are not perfect. A series playoff format allows some margin for error. The NFL’s one-game model allows for none.
It is easier for an underdog to run the table in the NFL playoffs, hence why the top teams have won a smaller percentage of the rings. Here is the same chart for NFL teams.
NFL championships have been distributed much more evenly than their MLB counterparts. The Packers are the only team with double-digit championships, but they are not a major outlier like the Yankees, only 4 ahead of the Bears.
There is no clear dropoff in the NFL like there was in the MLB.
As we will discuss later, the NBA has been extremely top-heavy in recent history. A quick look at the graph tells us that this is no new trend.
The Lakers and Celtics have owned the NBA since its birth. The Bulls were good in the 90s and the Warriors did well in the 2010s. All other decades have been dominated by either LA, Boston, or both.
The distribution of championships in the NHL is extremely similar to that of the MLB. The Canadiens have been absolutely unstoppable at times through history. The Leafs and the Wings have had their runs. Below Detroit is another large dropoff.
The WNBA, CFL, and EPL
The WNBA’s short history has seen a relatively even distribution of championships. There are two ways to look at it.
Some might say the WNBA has great parity because there is not one team with a runaway lead in rings and there is no large dropoff.
Others would argue that the WNBA is extremely top-heavy as only 7 different teams have ever won a championship.
This is nearly unavoidable in a league as small as the WNBA. They began with 8 teams in 1997 and now have expanded to 12.
The Candian Football League is similarly sized. Let’s see their story.
Although not nearly as popular as the NFL, the Canadian Football League has a rich history dating all the way back to 1958. Following a non popular sports has it perks – the biggest being that bookies will tend to set less accurate lines because there is not as much at stake for them. Read: $$$.
The Toronto Argonauts have won the most Grey Cups (17) with the Edmonton Eskimos 3 behind with 14. The championship distribution of the CFL seems very even. This speaks well to the parity of the league.
The CFL runs into the same problem that the WNBA faced – a small league. Only 9 different teams have won the Grey Cup but those wins are spread out among all teams relatively smoothly.
The most popular soccer league in the world, the English Premier League also provides unique opportunities to sports bettors used to wagering only on American sports.
Manchester United and Liverpool have both enjoyed tremendous runs of success throughout the Premier League’s storied 131-year history.
Many teams have won the Premier League over the years (most of them own multiple championships) but the league has definitely been dominated by the triumvirate of Man U, Liverpool, and Arsenal.
College Football and Basketball
College football championships have been up for grabs since 1869. More than one team claimed a championship in many of those years, leading to 370 total college football championships.
Fitting all of these in a pie chart would lead to a ridiculously crowded and over-divided pie. In an attempt to give a visual representation of championship distribution in college football, I instead organized a bar graph.
Although many teams have won a college football championship, only a few teams have won “a lot” of trophies.
One could point to the sheer number of champions and claim there is great parity in college football. Others point to the outliers at the top of the list and the large drop offs as proof that there is not much parity in the sport.
With a far lower number of championships given out over the years, it is clear to see that college basketball has excellent parity.
The leader, UCLA, has only 3 more trophies in their case than the #2 team Kentucky. There are no sharp drop offs in the graph. The bar slopes downward very gently.
It is interesting that the NBA has the least parity championship-wise of the 4 major sports and yet the college version of the sport spreads the wealth around very evenly.
This is all because of college basketball’s playoff model which is designed to create upsets and chaos.
NBA teams play series during the playoffs which give good teams a mulligan should they slip up and lose a game (or even two or three).
College basketball teams get no such cushion. Winning March Madness requires winning 6 straight basketball games, a feat that proves difficult even for elite teams.
Championship Distribution by the Numbers
Up until this point, I have been using words like “sharp drop off” or “top-heavy” without citing any numbers. This section is where I get into my favorite topic – numbers.
I wanted to quantifiably determine which leagues were the most top-heavy when it came to championships. I counted the percentage of championships that the top-3 teams accounted for in each sport. I then also calculated the same percentage for the top-5.
Obviously, leagues with a higher top-3 or top-5 percentage are more top-heavy, which means less parity and more dominance by the top teams. Here is what I found.
When comparing these results, I would split these leagues into 3 categories: the 4 major US sports, college sports, and the 3 alternative leagues.
Of the 4 major sports, the NBA has the least parity by this measure. The top-3 championship getters in basketball (Lakers, Celtics, Bulls/Warriors) account for over half of all championships. The top 5 make up nearly 70% of all title winners.
The NHL is nearly as top-heavy. The Canadiens, Leafs, and Red Wings have won over half of the Stanley Cups.
As the data in the pie graphs would suggest, the NFL has seen the most parity in this aspect of the 4 major sports.
With such small leagues, it is inevitable that both the WNBA and CFL have had a large majority of their championships won by only a few different teams.
Interestingly enough, the English Premier League’s numbers nearly mirror those of the MLB.
Purely because there are so many teams, top-3 and top-5 college football and basketball teams do not comprise a very large percentage of total championships.
To better compare these two sports, I created a separate chart which include the top-10 and top-20 championship getters for both CFB and CBB. Take a look.
Despite the fact that there have been over 200 more CFB championships than CBB, the elite football teams comprise a larger percentage of total trophies.
This truly speaks to the parity of college basketball.
I wanted to take a look at one additional stat. Anyone can win 1 ring, right? In my pie graphs, the teams with only 1 championship did not even get named. A franchise really makes their mark when they manage to win 2 championships.
I began to wonder which leagues have the most current franchises with rings and how many of those teams have won at least twice?
I looked it up and then made a simple bubble graph out of the data. The x-axis (left/right) represents how many teams in that league have won a championship. The y-axis (up/down) represents how many teams in the league have won more than one championship.
Leagues to the top right contain more champions than teams to the bottom left.
With over 45 champions that still play in the FBS and over 35 of them winning multiple times, college football dominates this parity measure.
My favorite part of this graph is the college basketball bubble. Notice how far more of the current D1 basketball teams have won rings than any of the 4 major sports and yet CBB has fewer 2-time winners than both the MLB and NFL.
This is fascinating. It really speaks to how hard it is to win a championship in college basketball.
This graph also displays the lack of parity in the EPL. In 131 years, only 11 teams have won twice.
The only statistics I analyzed for this study were championships. Tune in next week when I also break down the odds of making the playoffs and winning a series in each league.
Based solely on championships, here are my conclusions:
Major 4 Sports League with Most Parity: NFL
Major 4 Sports League with Least Parity: NBA
League with Most Parity: CBB
League with Least Parity: WNBA