Flip a coin. Exciting, right? Sometimes heads, sometimes tails, and if it's a normal coin it's close enough to 50/50 to make no difference. Think of all the fun you could have, especially if you got yourself emotionally invested in, say heads. When will you next beat those dastardly tails? Will your torment know no end?
Now that I've set the record for the most strained metaphor in human history*, I think it's probably time I got near a point, no? So. Sports. What are they? Why do we enjoy them?
*Excluding anything written by J.R.R. Tolkien.
There's a wonderful xkcd comic that describes sports commentary as a narrative constructed entirely around weighted dice rolls, and although that's taking things a little far, it's doesn't miss the mark by too much. The enjoyment of sport, at least to me, is an amalgamation of two separate elements.
First, we have the moment. Athletes do impossible things with almost alarming regularity. Feats of the mind and of the body frequently amaze and astound. They are what makes football a spectacle and chess (for example) less so. The moment is fickle, favouring one side, then the other, but no matter which direction in which luck leans, it's always fascinating.
Second, we have the narrative - the logic behind everything. This is the aspect of the sport that can (and according to some, should) be distilled into entirely probabilistic terms, but it's also the backdrop of the whole event. The narrative makes the spectacle of the moment relevant. On the boundary of the two, where the vivaciousness of the moment encounters the implacable narrative sometimes to triumph in defiance and sometimes to be smothered, lies the compulsion to watch the games in the first place.
So it is to me with watching football. One of the breeds of football I try to watch is Major League Soccer, but I've been having some trouble with it this year, and I don't think I'm alone. I'm going to try to offer up an explanation as to why.
MLS prides itself on team parity that simply doesn't exist in leagues like the Premier League or La Liga. There's a salary cap that locks teams onto the same spending level, a player allocation structure that does its best to prevent franchises using superior player acquisition techniques from gaining an advantage. The league lives in fear of what happened to the NASL, when the dominance of individual teams destroyed the competitive viability of everyone else.
Parity, then, is a strong selling point in North America. Put into the terms we talked about earlier, the NASL was a case when the narrative more or less completely overwhelmed the moment. There was magic there, for sure, but it was just a performance, divorced from any greater meaning (sort of like watching Barcelona play, actually). But it was shadow play - illusory and transitory, and the NASL died a deserved death in 1984.
So, we're left with its spectre hanging over our heads as the MLS continues to grow into its own. It's clear that the complete obliteration of parity is a terrible thing for the game. But what about going the other way? Is it possible to go too far towards even handedness? Yes. Yes it is. And the MLS is doing it.
A bit of randomness is a good thing. It brings us hope that some day our team will beat Real Salt Lake at the Rio Tinto, that no task is impossible. But that task is irrelevant without Real Salt Lake being better than everyone else in the first place: Beating your equals is really no feat at all. There needs to be a measure of inequality for us to care about the matches at all. Football needs good guys, and it needs bad guys - it needs some level of seperation between every team in every game.
What does a bad season mean for an MLS side right now? Mostly, nothing - a quick bounce back and they're in the playoffs next year, thanks to the tiny spread in talent between 90% of clubs in the league. The same goes for players. In 2009 Sebastian Le Toux was mostly a bench player who was left unprotected for the Philadelphia Union to take in the expansion draft. In 2010 he became an MVP candidate. In 2011 he's apparently gone back to his mediocre self. Presumably, in 2012 he'll cure cancer and prevent an alien menace from threatening the earth.
The fetish for parity means that randomness overtakes more or less everything else. When there are teams with virtually no talent spread between each other, the games stop mattering. And so it is with MLS right now. Even the teams seem to have admitted it - out of 116 games so far this season, 45 have ended up as draws; a rate more than 30% higher than in the Premier League. For the most part, they're not especially exciting ones, either, and that's making the league increasingly hard to watch.
You can't blame the teams, though. When you're faced with an equal and try to attack, there's a risk you'll lose everything. So, for now, why try? The match between Toronto FC and Sporting Kansas City last weekend was a hilarious example, one in which neither team did anything all game. Would that have happened if there was any real differentiation between the clubs? No.
Frankly, watching a coin flip isn't interesting, even with some emotional investment in the game. MLS's parity is on the verge of oppressive, to the point where you can no longer really construct a compelling narrative from the matches (thank goodness for the Los Angeles Galaxy, New York Red Bulls and RSL, incidentally), and that's a great way to see people drift away from watching, or caring.
Yes, there's still football, and that's still fun, but with MLS players still incapable of type of breathtaking skill we see from the top players in the world - and losing Steve Zakuani, David Ferreira and Javier Morales didn't help in terms of the league's overall level of play - there needs to be a framework in which we can enjoy the competition as well as the game itself. Right now, that's crumbling.
The Premier League needs Manchester United and it needs Wigan. Major League Baseball needs the New York Yankees as well as the Pittsburgh Pirates. International football needs Spain, and it needs the Faroe Islands, and everything in between. Sports are storytelling devices. Heroes and villains (and if you're a fan of a top side, you just enjoy being a villain) are a requirement.
Without them, it's just twenty-two men doing a reasonable job of kicking a ball around a field.