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Salary caps do not address parity issues in sports

Ask any Detroit Lions fan and they’ll tell you a hard truth — life isn’t fair. Since 2000 the Lions have made it to the playoffs twice, and lost their first-round game both of those times. Their last post-season win came in 1991, which was promptly followed by a loss in the NFC Conference Championship game. Seem fair? Maybe it’s not.

Parity in sports is difficult to establish, and efforts to combat this inequality differ remarkably across the world. Take the most popular sport in Europe, soccer, and the most popular sport in the US, football, as examples.

Soccer in Europe famously does not use salary caps of any sort. The more money the owner has, the more money they can afford to splash on big-name players. It ensures that the richest clubs will have continued success, and be able to attract and afford the best players. Financial Fair Play is a relatively recent addition in England that seeks to diminish the inequality, but it’s too little too late. Rich teams with rich sponsors are able to circumvent this practice with relative ease.

Since 1992, the year the Premier League was founded, there have been five teams that have emerged at the top of the table. Manchester United has won 13 times, with Chelsea following up that record with four. In La Liga, the top division in Spain, Barcelona and Real Madrid have won a combined 12 times since 2000. Germany’s top tier league, the Bundesliga, has seen Bayern Munich lift the trophy 10 times since 2000. There’s a clear, and very obvious disparity between the top teams and the bottom teams in each of these major divisions.

American football uses a salary cap, a financial means of regulating the amount of money that a team can spend each year on players. Ideally, this prevents richer owners from dominating their markets and preventing financially inferior teams from competing. They also have a system of drafting, where the team that possesses the worst overall record at the end of the last season is the first to acquire new players in the next season.

But ask the Lions just how well that works. Take a look at the Super Bowls since the turn of the century. The Patriots have appeared more than any other team with six appearances and four wins. The Giants have been in three, with two wins. The Steelers have also been in three Super Bowls since 2000, winning two of them. The Seahawks have been in three, and the Ravens have been in two.

Teams that win tend to keep winning. Nine teams have won the Superbowl in the past 16 years. Although this looks significantly better than most of the soccer teams listed above, this is a league that prides itself on maintaining a level of equality that, while more obvious than in Europe, may not be all it’s touted to be.

This could be due to the nature of the game. No position in soccer contributes to the game like a Hall of Fame quarterback contributes to their football team. Of the teams that have won a Super Bowl in 2000, virtually every single one has a quarterback who will go down in the history books. Tom Brady, Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethlisberger are some of the best quarterbacks in history. They are irreplaceable, and there often isn’t a player of their caliber in an entire draft class.

Team stability is another important factor. A good manager is essential for a team to prosper. Mike Tomlin took over for the Steelers between their Super Bowls. He quickly won his first for the team, and has since brought them to another Super Bowl, and won the AFC North two times. Bill Belichick, head coach for the Patriots, has led the team to six AFC Championship victories since he took over in 2000. Tom Coughlin led the Giants to both of their Super Bowl victories.
Whatever it is, some teams tend to keep winning, and some teams tend to keep losing. There’s no doubt that equality is far greater with salary caps and draft selections, but at the same time, there are teams that will succeed and there are teams that won’t. With the plethora of factors at play, it’s not as simple as establishing a salary cap to ensure parity in sports. And, for the teams at the bottom, they will always have a hard time envisioning a trip to the Super Bowl or championship any time soon if other factors like personnel and coaching aren’t addressed. Just ask the Detroit Lions.

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