I previously wrote about La Liga’s head-to-head tiebreaker system and found myself attacking the league’s system. Then I started thinking about all the various things that make a league what it is: the format, the structure, etc. Then I started thinking about how that compares to other leagues around the world, both within the footballing world and in other sports as well. In researching this, I came up with potentially more questions than answers, but I think they are valid questions and comparisons that need to be made if we’re to understand, in the end, La Liga from the ground up.
Since 2000, there have been 6 different Super Bowl winners* and 5 different NBA champions**. During that same period in La Liga there have been 3 different title winners***. Why is it that the NFL has such a larger number of teams winning titles than anyone else?
There are certainly major differences between the playing structure of the NFL and that of La Liga, not the least of which is the tournament structure of the playoffs that, at least on the surface, would appear to aid one-off teams to beat heavy favorites (see the 2007-08 Giants beating a previously undefeated Patriots team) whereas the points structure of La Liga would, again at least on the surface, lend itself to the team that was best over the course of the entire season.
In reducing the effects of an “upset,” La Liga places the value squarely on the long-term abilities of a team rather than the short-term. It is a staple of American sports that the “anyone can win on any given day,” but the unspoken part of that is “and that actually matters.” In La Liga, each team invariably loses a couple to a lot of games per season, but, as with Barça last year, those losses are made irrelevant by the other wins. In the NFL, championships don’t necessarily mean much relative to a given team’s regular season efforts. The Giants, when they last won the Super Bowl, were a wildcard team with a 10-6 record. Compare that to the obviously superior Patriots at 16-0, who, despite this perfect record (they were 18-0 heading into the Super Bowl), were beaten by what amounted to a team that shouldn’t have been there in the first place. So, before we proceed, how do we define “parity”?
To me, parity is not a longer list of past champions, but rather a league whose teams are incapable of maintaining dominance over a long period of time because the talent pool is evenly distributed throughout the teams. This is clearly not the case in La Liga, but does that create less competition or does it, in fact, create better competition between the teams who concentrate the talent? Is parity the likelihood of a team that has not previously won a championship (or hasn’t for some defined number of years) ending up with the trophy?
Given that the structures of the leagues are different, let’s look at the NFL since 1999 and see who had the best regular season record (and thus is the regular season champion, so to speak): Jaguars (1999, 14-2); Rams (2001, 14-2) Eagles, Packers, Buccaneers (2002, 12-4); Steelers (2004, 15-1); Colts (2005, 14-2); Chargers (2006, 14-2); Patriots (2003, 14-2; 2007, 16-0); Titans (2000, 13-3; 2008, 13-3). Note that only the 2003 Patriots and the 2002 Buccaneers won the Super Bowl.
Compare that to the worst teams in league over those same 10 years: Browns (1999, 2-14); Chargers (2003, 4-12; 2000, 1-15); Panthers (2001, 1-15); Bengals (2002, 2-14); Cardinals, Giants (2003, 4-12); 49ers (2004, 2-14); Texans (2005, 2-14); Raiders (2003, 4-12; 2006, 2-14); Dolphins (2007, 1-15); Lions (2008; 0-16). Note there is one crossover (Chargers) that took place over a 3 year period. During that same period, one team, the Giants, had the worst record during this span and also won the Super Bowl. It is perhaps noteworthy that there are four teams—Giants, Panthers, Raiders, and Cardinals—that at one point had the worst record in the league and also lost in a Super Bowl during that period.
In NCAA men’s basketball, it is rare (as in has only happened once in the 80-year history of the tournament) to find all four number one seeds in the Final Four, but that, to me, is not suggestive of parity. Rather, it is suggestive of the volatility of a 64-team, single-elimination tournament. To better understand, this, let’s look at all of the Copa del Rey champions from the last 10 years: Espanyol (2), Zaragoza (2), Depor, Mallorca, Betis, Sevilla, Valencia, Barça.
While the CDR is by no means the feature competition of Spain, it is certainly an important enough cup that teams who otherwise have no business earning silverware have a shot at winning it. It’s not just the eventual victor, however, but also the early-round upsets that are actually important here. Last year, Real Madrid lost to Real Union, a nothing and nobody team; while it’s not strange for a Big Gun to lose to a smaller squad (Numancia beat Barça last year, for instance), because of the format, RM’s campaign was over thanks to that one-off loss (played over two legs, yes, but still a knockout phase).
The Champions League quarterfinals and beyond is generally comprised of teams with economic parity and there has never been a repeat champion. That ManU made it to the final last year after having won the competition the year before was an impressive feat that many felt was worthy of mention before, during the match, and afterwards. That suggests that economic parity creates at least the semblance of sporting parity—last year the quarterfinals were comprised of Schalke 04, Barcelona, Roma, ManU, Arsenal, Liverpool, Fenerbahçe, and Chelsea; the year before it was Barcelona, ManU, Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool, Bayern Munich, Porto, and Villarreal. Obviously there is some variation and this is a very small sample, but that 5 of those teams were repeats is fairly suggestive of some level of parity between those specific teams. Variation is reduced further when you look at the semifinals, (3 of 4 were the same). I don’t want to read too much into that since this post is still ostensibly dealing with La Liga’s parity, so I’ll leave it at that and let you come up with the numbers over the last 10 years as well as what they mean.
The NBA has a lower number of champions, but it also has a quirk to its tournament that none of the other leagues we’ve discussed have: instead of a tournament with a one-off or home and away leg format, each team must defeat their opponents in a best-of-5 or best-of-7 series. It seems to be generally accepted that this eliminates many of the factors associated with upsets because it allows the “better” team to have a bad game or two, yet still, over the course of the series, assert dominance. Given that “better” teams will likely do better over the long term, it makes sense that in the regular season and the Champions League group stages, the bigger teams generally wrest control of the standings from the minnows.
Now, let’s talk about who those big teams are and why they’re capable of such dominance. In the NFL, there’s a hard salary cap that, in essence, forces teams to choose between players rather than contracting them all. Thus the talent base is more widely spread out across the league and only particular factors such as a team’s “philosophy” makes the real difference. Given that talent is not uniform even within the front offices, it is still likely that one team will end up being “better” than the others, it’s just not as likely that that team will be enough better than the other teams to render the games they play moot.
In La Liga, no such restrictions apply, so only the rather mundane issue of player contracts keeps teams like RM or Barça from hording players en masse. Because there are enough players and the talent pool is large enough, scouting is hard to do, thus smaller teams become the feeders for larger teams because they reduce the risk of failure incurred by bringing on a promising yet unproven talent. But because money is not really a problem, the larger teams merely buy up the talent once it is proven and incur none of the risk and get most of the return from that player. Thus the talent pool is effectively reduced to those teams who have enough money to purchase said talent and everyone else is left out in the cold. Given the fairly recent rise of TV revenue as a major and vital source of income for clubs, it’s not surprising that there were more non-big two (or big four, depending on your league) champions until a couple of years ago.
But, let’s look at win percentages over the last 10 years in the NFL and La Liga. Please note that I included ties in the NFL as losses because they are specifically not wins. Since there were only 2 such results (affecting 4 teams), this won’t actually affect the calculations enough to matter (2 games is 1% of the 165 games that the Patriots played in my data set (this is where I got the numbers from). Another note is that these numbers include the playoffs. I then took all of the final standings from La Liga since the 2000-2001 season and combined them by team.
Obviously the number of teams in La Liga stays constant from year-to-year, but the teams themselves are shuffled around by relegation and promotion. Since 2000, there have been 33 different teams in La Primera. Of those, six teams have played just one season up top: Rayo Vallecano, Sporting Gijon, Cadiz, Real Oviedo, Tenerife, and Gimnastic, meaning they have only 38 possible wins. And yes, I know that Gijon and Tenerife are both playing in this year’s top flight, but I didn’t include this year in my study. There were 9 teams that have played in all of the seasons (342 matches): Barcelona, Real Madrid, Valencia, Depor, Villarreal, Mallorca, Athletic Bilbao, Espanyol, and Osasuna.
So, then, to the numbers, which are possibly somewhat amateur since I’m doing these things for the first time and might not have as solid a grasp on them as I think. That’s your warning; certainly feel free to correct/point out any mistakes I may have made. In the NFL, the average Win Percentage (Win %) was 49.62% and the http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Standard_deviation standard deviation was 9.89%. In La Liga, the average Win % was 33.65% with a standard deviation of 9.69%. For those of you who think Points-Earned Percentage is more important (that is, points earned divided by games played times 3), that number is 41.80% and the standard deviation is 9.54%.
That means that, were the distribution to be normal, roughly 68% of all the teams in La Liga would be in the Win % range between 23.96% and 43.34%. That’s a fairly wide group, in my estimation. That Real Madrid and Barcelona sit at 60.23% and 55.26% means they’re 26.59 and 21.62 percentage points removed from the mean win percentage. In the NFL, the best team since 2000, the Patriots, are 22.5% from the mean while the second best team, the Colt, are 19.52% away. Again, those numbers might be skewed because of the playoffs, but I suspect that were the playoffs removed, both teams would be closer to the mean, but that is purely speculative.
On the other end of the spectrum, Murcia was 17.86% removed from the mean win rate (they played in 2 seasons—76 matches—winning just 12 times and earning a total of 56 points) and Gimnàstic de Tarragona 15.23% off the pace. Interestingly, they collected the same percentage of points as Murcia (24.56%). In the NFL, these numbers were 21.92% for the Lions and 14.72% for the Browns. Note that the Texans only played in 116 games during this period (as compared to the average of 153 games for everyone else) because they’re an expansion team that didn’t exist in 2000; they ended up 3rd worst with a Win % of 36.21%, which is 13.41% from the mean.
Roughly speaking, this suggests, at least on the surface, that there’s a lot of similarities between the NFL and La Liga in terms of how the average teams fair, but I think closer inspection reveals that if you’re better in La Liga, you’re so substantially better (Real Madrid was 2.7 standard deviations away from the mean while the Patriots were 2.27 standard deviations away from the mean) that you will always dominate. I can’t adjust in a “per dollar” sense (see here and here) because I don’t have the budgets for La Liga’s teams. If you know where that information can be found, let me know in the comments. Basically, I would assume that were we to look at the “Wins per Euro” we would find that each additional euro/dollar would increase the likelihood of winning. That sounds logical, of course, but we don’t know for sure if that is true until we compare the salaries themselves.
All in all, we’re seeing that there is quite a bit of competition in the middle of the pack, but that they are not coming close to challenging the upper echelons of the league. Barcelona and Real Madrid have, through slightly differing means, consolidated their hold on the league. Again, I suspect that we’re really taking money here and more specifically TV rights money, but, also again, we’ll just have to ignore that for the moment.
Real Sociedad made quite a run for the title in 2002-03, ending up second, and Super Depor was quite a force from 2000-01 until 2004-05 when they ended up finishing 8th. Celta de Vigo is certainly a funny story, in a sense, as they were in the Champions League a couple of times and made to the last 16 while finishing last in La Liga. They were promoted, finished in a UEFA Cup spot and then were relegated again in 2006-07 and we haven’t seen them since. I miss them, actually, but we won’t be seeing them soon as they finished 17th last year in the Segunda and are currently in the relegation zone (20th). Real Sociedad is currently top of the table, which you can check out here. Keeping your finances in order, it turns out, is quite important.
So, because this blog is, as always, indebted to its readers and at least this writer isn’t the most brilliant mathematician, if you have any suggests or better ways to read this information let us all know in the comments and I’ll dutifully incorporate that into my next statistical post.
*Ravens, Patriots, Buccaneers, Steelers, Colts, Giants
**Pistons, Spurs, Lakers, Heat, Celtics
***Barça, Real Madrid, Valencia