Three events stand above all others, to me, as strokes of genius that made modern sports what they are today.
1. The designing of the baseball diamond.
2. Pete Rozelle’s herding of stubborn, individualistic NFL owners into a revenue-sharing collective that made the league the financial juggernaut it is today.
3. The popularization of the modern, almost-everybody-gets-a-trophy playoff format.
Somehow the New York Knickerbockers — maybe it was Alexander Cartwright, maybe it was someone else — determined that their fledgling sport should space bases 90 feet apart, with a pitcher’s mound 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.
Those dimensions have withstood the tests of almost two centuries of change — the advent of lively baseballs, Babe Ruth, faster and stronger players and performance-enhancing drugs. The baseball diamond is heartening if rare proof of intelligent life on Earth.
Rozelle knew that allowing New York football teams to dominate his league would decrease interest, so he devised a revenue-sharing mechanism that would allow Green Bay to compete on an equal footing with the Giants.
The idea itself isn’t evidence of genius so much as was Rozelle’s ability to persuade owners to accept it. Now all 32 teams benefit from national television deals that border on the financially obscene, and any team that fails to win can blame only itself for its poor management.
The modern playoff format is the most recent development that makes teams and leagues rich.
Look around the Twin Cities. It is late February. Minnesota’s major sports teams are either hovering around the middle of the pack of their conferences or leagues, or hoping to hover that high.
The Timberwolves have fired their coach, traded their most accomplished player, hired a 32-year-old as a first-time head coach, experienced embarrassing losing streaks … and they’re still in the playoff race.
Following Tuesday’s 4-0 loss to Anaheim, the Wild had lost five in a row, had executed a horrific trade and had prompted Zach Parise to question his team’s effort. And yet the Wild is in the playoff race.
The Gophers men’s basketball team is 7-8 in the Big Ten. Like the Wolves and Wild, the Gophers are the definition of average, if not mediocre. Their fan base will continue to obsess over their chances of making the 68-team NCAA tournament field. The NCAA has made us care who the nation’s 68th-best team is.
The Gophers women’s basketball team was once 2-7 in the Big Ten. A winning streak of six games has elevated them to 8-7. Like the men, they will spend the rest of their schedule obsessing over net ratings and power rankings and postseason chances.
If the NBA, NHL and college basketball had not increased their playoff fields, all four teams would be playing irrelevant games. Fan bases would be apathetic.
Because of the expanded playoff fields, all four teams can sell drama to their fans. Every game matters. Every game could be the difference between making the postseason and perhaps getting a coach fired.
Our sports teams are selling you hamburger and telling you it’s steak.
They’re selling “contention” only because they changed the parameters of contention.
You can bemoan the lowering of standards or the cheapening of qualifications to secure a postseason berth, but there is too much money in modern sports for these leagues to conduct seasons in which only a small portion of the games are meaningful and only a small portion of the teams are relevant.
Too many games are on TV. Rights holders pay too much to the leagues. Fans pay too much for tickets. Leagues would be leaving millions if not billions on the table if they rewarded only elite teams with postseason berths.
How about this for a magic trick: When Wild fans left early Sunday, as their team lost 4-0 to St. Louis and their losing streak reached five games, their team still held the eighth and final playoff seed in the West.
Modern sports celebrate mediocrity and laugh all the way to their banking apps.
Jim Souhan’s podcast can be heard at TalkNorth.com. On Twitter: @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org