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Unbalanced

Today's news brings two columns from opposite sides of the pond, with different gripes about their sports leagues. Newmark's Door directs us to Bill Simmons' latest screed, in which he argues that the NBA is suffering from too much parity. In the Telegraph, Tony Francis gets in a number of clever lines while ruing the predictable dominance of the big clubs in English soccer. As in "The English game is a duopoly masquerading as a competition."

Francis has plenty of company making that point these days, but even so I think it's a bit overstated. Manchester United were not expected to win the Premier League this year, but their perch at the top makes them the target of the Robin Hood gang. Chelsea's title in 2005 was their first in 50 years, so they can't be viewed as a permanent fixture atop the landscape. Chelsea illustrate the opposite -- that it is possible to progress from also-ran to a title winner with good coaching and um..., a massive budget. For all intents and purposes though, the Premier League title race appears to be a four team competition for the foreseeable future -- a "quadopoly," perhaps.

Simmons apparently wants a return to the days when the Lakers and Celtics played King-of-the-NBA-Hill (mostly the Celtics, in his case). He offers a few quick fixes -- contraction, lottery reform and a new playoff system -- which seem fanciful to me. But Simmons' overall theme is essentially right: the struggle to be the best is an essential element in sports competition. League rules which promote parity at the expense of this struggle are rules which come with a significant cost.

Part of the problem in England right now is that the riches of the Champions League induces Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Man Utd to stock up on the world's most talented players. They need this talent to compete with the likes of AC Milan, Barcelona et al. Watford and Charlton have no realistic shot at Champions League revenue, and thus no reason to make the incremental investment in talent. So the talent gap between the top and the bottom is spread out, making the domestic competition more predictable and less attractive. But these are market forces at work, and any so-called remedy for the domestic league would curtail the ability of English Clubs to compete in Europe. My short piece from 2004 on "The Scale of Competition" addresses this issue further.