Like a movie, every league needs a good villain.
Every week, our panel of sports fans discusses a topic of the moment. For today's conversation, Jake Simpson (writer, The Atlantic), Patrick Hruby (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic), and Hampton Stevens (writer, ESPN and The Atlantic) talk about the essential role superteams play in sports.
The Evil Empire of U.S. sports has always resided in New York, where the profligate Yankees have outspent the opposition for decades. But this summer proves that a Wicked Witch of the West is rising—the L.A. Dodgers, and to a lesser extent the NBA's L.A. Lakers.
The Dodgers were acquired earlier this year by mogul investors Stan Kasten, Magic Johnson (yes, that Magic), and private fund firm Guggenheim Partners among others for an eye-popping $2 billion. With deep-pocketed private fund backers and one of the country's largest markets AND a multi-billion dollar TV deal with Fox in the works, the Dodgers were expected to spend big at the trade deadline, which they did by acquiring elite Miami Marlins third baseman Hanley Ramirez. But no one expected what came last week: a megadeal with Boston where the Dodgers acquired star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, malcontent pitcher Josh Beckett, and injured former star Carl Crawford for a package of minor leaguers and big-league nobodies. That's more than $260 million in player salaries overall picked up by the Dodgers in a single day.
Kasten made the Dodgers' financial position very clear in a chat with reporters Sunday after the trade went down. Asked by the Los Angeles Times about a spending limit for the team, Kasten said: "I haven't found it yet. I'll let you know when we get there." OK, then.
Meanwhile, the Lakers have built their latest superteam despite operating in the salary-capped NBA by offering what they always offer: tradition, pride, and living in Los Angeles. The argument worked on a who's who of famous centers over the decades: Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O'Neal all came to L.A. via trade or free agency and stayed for years. Now Dwight Howard, the NBA's best center, has joined the Lakers along with point guard wizard Steve Nash, who chose L.A. over the bright lights of the Big Apple.
What do you make of all of this, Patrick? Is it good for the MLB and NBA to have superteams in big markets like L.A., New York, Chicago, Boston and Miami? Or does the rich-getting-richer theme bug you?
Give me Los Galacticos. The millennial New York Yankees. The Hydra Miami Heat. The Constructicons-form-Devestator Los Angeles Lakers. Give me superstar recruit-studded Kentucky, North Carolina and Duke—apologies in advance to Hampton's beloved Kansas Jayhawks—in college basketball, and USC versus the SEC in college football. Give me UConn and Tennessee in women's college hoops. Give me The Avengers. Give me the top, and just the top, the way Mitt Romney likes to eat his muffins. I, for one, welcome the Los Angeles Dodgers' attempt to spend their way into baseball overlord status: Gaze upon my mighty payroll, ye Padres fans, and despair! Fact is, I love superteams.
I love 'em because I hate 'em.
I'm not sure when it happened—possibly when I was watching Arizona smash Duke in the 2011 NCAA tournament; probably when I was giggling at New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick's sullen interview after Super Bowl XLII—but at some point in my fandom, I realized I want and need blue bloods. Teams and franchises so good, loaded, and lucky that they make sports seem totally unfair. Big, bad, privileged bullies. The reason? Rooting against them is too much fun. For one, superteams are easy to detest. Familiarity—like the Blue Devils being on national television basically every week—breeds contempt. Success breeds obnoxious, entitled fans. Moreover, superteams are like gambling: They provide a reflexive, convenient cheering interest for contests that I otherwise wouldn't care about. That St. Louis-Tennessee Super Bowl? Great game, but yawn. Meanwhile, I watched the first Patriots-Giants super Sunday clash as if the fate of Western Civilization was at stake, as if Eli Manning was the only thing standing between Xerxes' armies and Sparta. And I usually don't even like New York teams.
Superteams—and really, let's just call them sports villains—create a comforting year-in, year-out continuity, which is one of the underrated pleasures of following sports. As a fan, you know that the Lakers are going to somehow end up with the best center in the league; you know the Yankees are going to outbid everyone for just about every player they really want; you know Kentucky is going to land a half-dozen high school All-Americans. You know this the way you know the New York Knicks will do something short-sighted and ill-advised. And all of this is good. It fashions order out of a chaotic, unpredictable universe. Better still, superteams are themselves unpredictable. They don't always win. They don't usually win it all. They often go down to underdogs—think the Detroit Pistons in 2004, or the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001—and when they fail, the failing is glorious, a soul-replenishing reaffirmation that life doesn't always play out according to the scouting report.
Star Wars needed Darth Vader. Batman needs the Joker. I need superteams. Hampton, where do you stand?
Well, Patrick. I stand for purity, truth, and all the wholesome Red State virtues. Which, in this case, includes socialism. That is, parity. Superteams kind of ruin it, don't they? In Kansas City, the NFL's billionaire version of "You didn't build that" means the Chiefs can compete on a financially level field. MLB, though, has superteams and also-rans—like the Royals. To me anyway, with a view from below, it makes the league loads less fun to watch.
But if it's villains you want, stay away from L.A. This is California, guys. It's Southern California, too. That's the very worst kind. L.A. is the city of TMZ, botox, and Kardashians. It's a place that had no use for F. Scott Fitzgerald or William Faulkner, but made Ryan Seacrest a gazillionaire.
Sure, Boston fans may act all snobby and entitled. Philly fans are loud and crude. The Easterners have passion for their teams and show it. That's good. What are Dodger fans famous for? Coming late and leaving early to beat traffic, mostly.
That's why Jake will still have to sell me on the idea that L.A. is the rising center of American sport. No passion. They are all too... mellow.
Maybe if UCLA gets back to the Final Four and the Trojans win a BCS title. Also if Donald Sterling would get abducted by aliens. Plus, if our country's second biggest city and world's entertainment capital could manage to keep an NFL franchise in town, that would help make the case. Still, in a city that can win a Stanley Cup and yawn, and where cameras at Lakers' games cut away to show Mario Lopez in the stands, it's safe to say that sports is still second-best.