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Competition or entertainment: What do we really want?

Idolatry and superstardom will always be an inescapable factor in the realm of professional athletics, especially in the United States. There will always be Babe Ruths, Michael Jordans and Tom Bradys. These idols stand as models of talent and work ethic as well as entry points into sports and athletics through which passion and community can bloom. Sports have an amazing unifying effect, where millions of people can experience the same victories and defeats all at the same time. Unfortunately, the stars that seduce fans into the world of national sports leagues are having a negative effect on the teams that compete in them, and thus the quality of the sports themselves.

One of America’s most popular sports leagues, the NBA, has had a particularly difficult time with the issues that superstars pose. Although there are always five players from each team on the court at one time, there is no other sport in which one player can carry a team on his back. These players represent the best the league has to offer; they put up the most points per game, make endless three pointers and are often impossible to guard. Whatever their skill set, these players have the ability to bring a mediocre team all the way to the finals. Naturally, these players want as much money as they can get from whichever team they are playing for, which is all well and good, but it means that some teams that bring in more revenue simply due to the area they reside in (such as Los Angeles, Boston or Houston) are at an advantage over teams with comparably smaller markets.

The NBA has done its best to prevent large markets from simply buying their way to a championship by imposing regulations on how much organizations can pay players and charging fines for anything considered to be trade meddling (which can be as innocent as a tweet expressing interest in a player). Despite the NBA’s effort, players and organizations still manage to find workarounds, with a prime example being the Golden State Warriors, a team on track for three national titles in a row as a result of having two season MVPs along with three other all-stars on their roster. There are two things that draw fans: success and stars. When large scale organizations have a monopoly on both, it leaves smaller market teams with lower viewership, which leaves them with even less revenue to offer as seductive contracts to star players.

The star athlete problem is not isolated to the NBA. In fact, it is arguably most severe in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The revenue for the organization and the fighters is largely based on pay-per-view buys. This means that fights for weight class titles are not based on a fighter’s skill level or how many fights they’ve won, but instead upon whether or not the organization thinks the fighters will bring in views. In an interview with, Demetrious Johnson, the former flyweight champion of the UFC, told a reporter of his “despicable treatment” at the hands of the fight organizers of the UFC, where he was bullied into fighting individuals that either had yet to win enough matches or weren’t in his weight class simply because they were more popular with viewers than the rightful contender.

All stars are imperative to the financial success of professional sports organizations, but there also must be a degree of integrity involved in the way that those stars are both treated and distributed. This isn’t to say that athletes shouldn’t have agency to play for whatever team they like, or that teams shouldn’t be allowed to make trades for players, but a team’s success should not be based on its wealth or its ability to manipulate the system. It will most certainly be entertaining to watch the Golden State Warriors during the NBA finals, but it’s impossible to say that it wouldn’t be immensely more entertaining if every team had a chance to win. If only a handful of teams are ever going to be competitive, then why are there 30?

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