The power of pro sports, in all forms, may reach its peak during the gift-giving holidays.
Not just season tickets or a big-screen televisions to watch games. Not just Red Zone packages or the latest Madden console game. Not just the jerseys of hometown stars or on-line subscriptions for fantasy league tips. Not just game-worn memorabilia or a framed photo of the ballpark where you want your ashes scattered someday. How about a real seat from torn-down Yankee Stadium?
Put it all together, and it’s enormous. Why do these games attract us so powerfully?
Here’s part of the answer: Pro sports constantly break the rules of probability — and thus of surprise, elation and dismay — that we associate with daily life. Our games knock the socks off fiction. This phenomenon happens constantly. Yet it continues to amaze us. Our games are actual competitions — not fake, not movies, not comic books. How can they defy our sense of “reality?”
You doubt my premise? Look around. You’re in the middle of it. Look at the teams in one city in one brief time-frame: Washington, right now.
Think back to Aug. 1. Now imagine Jan. 1. In that time, every pro sports team in Washington has been turned upside down. If you want to know why America is addicted to the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL, then what has happened to the choking Nationals, the fading Wizards, the NFC East-leading Redskins and the suddenly sublime Capitals gives us clues.
For five months, Washington has had its jaw on the floor. On Aug. 1, the Nationals were leading the National League East and still a top World Series pick. (Those crazy Mets had just traded for Yoenis Cespedes.) Robert Griffin III was still the Washington quarterback for a 4-12 team in a six-year nose dive (32-64). Coach Jay Gruden was thinking, “Kirk Cousins,” but not saying it.
As NBA and NHL preseasons loomed, the Wizards hoped to be slightly better than last season, when they reached the NBA’s final eight — and might have gone further if John Wall’s wrist hadn’t gotten broken in six places. The Capitals? After being snuffed in yet another Game 7 at home by a nemesis foe (the New York Rangers), they were still choking dogs.
Then, Dan Snyder’s team was a laughing stock. Ted Lerner’s club was one of the toasts of baseball. Now, Washington is a win on Saturday night in Philadelphia away from clinching the NFC East — with a week to spare. And the Nats in winter? They have been turned down by three agents who accepted less money elsewhere: Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Darren O’Day. Lost prestige? Brandon Phillips invoked a no-trade clause to stay with the lousy 96-loss Reds.
The Wizards, 12-14 and in last place in the Southeast, have regressed so badly and play such poor defense that you wonder if it’s even worth hoping they make the playoffs. Meantime, the Caps have added the perfect acrobatic reckless offensive attacker: T.J. Oshie. Their very good goalie, Braden Holtby, used his playoff battle against Henrik Lundqvist as a springboard to become the NHL’s best goalie. Magical Russian Evgeny Kuznetsov has spent two years gaining strength and adjusting to the NHL in exactly the ways the Caps hoped when they drafted him as a teen.
If you predicted the radical change of direction of one of these teams, that just makes you an ardent fan. If you spotted two of them, you deserve a prize. If you nailed three of them, Goldman Sachs wants you to whisper your stock picks for 2016 in their ears. And if you got all four, the FBI, CIA and NSA want to speak with you because they’d like open a Nostradamus Bureau.
How can this happen?
We know that sports league designs themselves for parity and surprise. The draft, in reverse order of finish, is designed to equalize talent. Socialistic salary caps and luxury taxes create balance. Also, a small core of players at key positions or top coaches have an outsized impact on results.
We know all this. But we still don’t have a clear sense of what is actually “normal.” This year, I wrote columns that looked back at results since 1983 in the NFL and MLB to see how likely the Nats were to continue succeeding, after winning their division by 17 games in 2014, and how likely the Redskins were to remain bad for years to come. Let’s revisit.
Since ’83, five of 14 teams in the Nats’ position (runaway division winners by 15 or more games) failed to repeat. Now, make it six of 20. When tempted to predict baseball . . . don’t.
Since ’83, NFL teams that were beaten by more than 100 points in back-to-back seasons (like Washington) usually endured several more years of .500-or-below results. The average of all 18 such lousy teams: four more years of “bad.” But some escaped: Four teams did rebound quickly.
Pro sports franchises are famous — national brand names — to a degree that is comically out of proportion to their actual value as businesses or the number of people they employ. A sports team may be worth $1 billion; a company that’s worth $1 billion is just a “small cap stock.”
Compared to corporations, universities or any institution whose name is instantly recognized, sports teams are tiny. A corporation is like a huge ocean liner: hard to change course. An NFL, MLB, NHL or NBA team with just 45, 25, 20 or 12 active roster spots, is a nimble little yacht.
Studies have been done of “toxic workplaces.” Apparently, a relatively small number of toxic employees, especially if they are in key roles, can contaminate entire businesses. The bad apples really can rot the whole barrel. But the opposite is also true: When toxic employees disappear, there’s a tipping point when the whole operation rapidly becomes productive again.
The cumulative impact of change, for good or bad, on such yacht-sized operations can be enormous. Add an Oshie? Get better fast. Add Jonathan Papelbon? The change in workplace tone, in team “likeability” for a fan base, can be sudden and sometimes delightful. Just two years ago, the four most visible symbols of the Redskins were Dan Snyder, Bruce Allen, Mike Shanahan and Griffin. Now, GM Scot McCloughan, Gruden, Cousins and Trent Williams. From toxic to tonic?
We think we know where these four teams are headed now, right? Except that we don’t. They loom large in our vision, like ocean-going supertankers. But they aren’t really that big at all, nor are their courses that firmly set. When the wind changes, yachts reacts.
The constant unpredictability of sports is one of its strongest hooks. If you don’t like the weather, just wait: It’ll change. And so will the course of your team.