Feel free to consider this a once-in-a-while break from my usual tech-y stuff, so I can pontificate on another subject near and dear to my choler: the need to make the USA’s two most prominent major pro sports leagues admit at last that the wars are over.
I speak, of course, of how Major League Baseball (MLB) and the National Football League (NFL) are still laid out based on long-ago feuds and fusses that matter to very few of their modern-day fans.
Echoes of long-ago rancor
The NFL’s current National and American Conferences date from when the NFL merged with the original American Football League (AFL) in 1966 and began playing a unified—but still Conference-oriented—schedule four years later. This arrangement had a precedent from the early 1950s after the NFL absorbed its 1940s rival, the All-American Football Conference (AAFC)1 and operated for three years with National and American Conferences before reverting to Eastern and Western Conferences in 1953.
Meanwhile, MLB has been two leagues since 1903, when the 1876-vintage National League (NL) reluctantly began having its champion play the 1901-vintage2 American League (AL) champion in the (usually3) annual World Series.
Seeing a pattern here? All the arguing was a long time ago. The vast majority of those who fought the NFL-AFL battle are long gone, and everybody involved in the original NL-AL dustup is history.
So, too, should be the artificiality of which teams play whom, and how often. Each organization should be one big league, divided on geographical lines, as are the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA)—each of which, by the way, also went through mergers and absorptions with long-ago competitors, but managed to end up doing things correctly with geographically oriented conferences and divisions.
Thus, I offer this modest proposal for peace in our time for the two sticklers. Each of the following suggested configurations is based on the compass, although in many ways it still pays homage to some particularly important long-time rivalries—so, see, I’m not completely blowing off history.4
How I’d arrange MLB
MLB has thirty teams, so it can’t be divided evenly among the four compass points. (The NHL and NBA have thirty teams each and chose to split into two conferences with three divisions each, but I don’t favor that approach for either MLB or the NFL.)
Perhaps the two gaps could be filled by expansion teams. I would be surprised, for example, if someday soon doesn’t see MLB in Charlotte, as quickly as that area is growing, so that could fill the gap in either the South or the East. In the latter case, I think a Charlotte team could form an interesting rivalry with both Washington and Baltimore.
One additional possibility could be Las Vegas, which already has the NHL and will soon be the new home of the NFL’s now-Oakland Raiders. If so, you could put Las Vegas in the West, move Detroit to the East so it could be in the same division as nearby Toronto, and let Colorado take Detroit’s place in the North, albeit as somewhat of an outlier (the closest team in the North would be Minnesota, and I can’t say there’s much of a history one way or the other between Denver and Minneapolis).
So how would I decide the champions of the new, unified MLB universe each year?
- Qualifiers: The four division champions and two wildcards make the playoffs. This is a big change from how MLB does it now, in which qualifiers include six division champions and four wildcards (which quickly get cut down to two wildcards). Nonetheless, I think this makes more sense. Consider that the thickest part of the playoffs occurs just as football, both college and pro, is really starting to get interesting. Thus, fewer teams and fewer series should mean more national focus or, at the very least, less to track. It also means fewer marginal teams getting in. I’m not big on the “participation trophy” approach to playoffs—i.e., keeping more teams in the mix longer just to draw butts to seats, regardless of play quality—in the so-called linear sports like baseball, basketball, and hockey. All that said, I do know many, especially fans of the more financially strapped teams who have a hard time staying in there with the top-dollar squads, would hate a winnowing-down of MLB playoff spots.
- Divisional Playoffs: Best 3-of-5. The top two division champs get a bye while the other two division champs host the two wildcards.
- Semifinals: Best 4-of-7. The top two host the Divisional Playoffs’ winners. (Yes, it’s a little sad to give up the “LCS” moniker, but it just wouldn’t apply any more. Sorry.)
- World Series: Best 4-of-7. And, yes, it’s possible this ends up as two teams from the same division. But if they’re the two best at the end, well, why not?
How I’d arrange the NFL
The NFL’s divisions already are arranged by the compass within each conference (not to mention it has an evenly-divisible-by-four number of teams), so we have a better starting point than with MLB. However, some of the divisions’ configurations are squirrelly due to the NFL’s wish to maintain long-time rivalries, some of which never really made sense but were historical accidents.5
Anyway, here we go . . .
Yeah, I know: poor Kansas City, getting clobbered both times. I have nothing against Kansas City. I just had no better place. At least there’s the long-time rivalry with Denver and the soon-to-be-Las Vegas Raiders to keep KC happy.
Again, wanting to strip things down to the truly best teams, I’d actually eliminate a weekend—the “Wildcard Weekend” that kicks off the current postseason configuration each January—from the NFL playoffs.6
- Qualifiers: The four division champions and four wildcards qualify. (Right now, eight division champions and four wildcards qualify.)
- Divisional Playoffs: The four division champs host the four wildcards. Nobody gets a bye. Why? Doesn’t the rough-and-tough nature of NFL football make it nice for the top teams to get a week off at this point? Yes, but, often, teams with byes seem to lose some of their edge in that week off. It’s said football players really don’t do well with changes to their weekly routine—even if for a much-needed week of rest and healing. So, oddly, I might be doing some of the best teams a favor. (I doubt they’d thank me.) Note also that, since I’m cutting a week from the playoffs, the two teams that make it all the way to the Super Bowl will get done sooner—not to mention that, as has been the case for most of the Super Bowl’s history, they get a weekend off between the semifinals and the Super Bowl.
- Semifinal Sunday: The four survivors of the Divisional Playoffs meet for the right to go to the Super Bowl.
- Super Bowl: Obviously, this is between the two Semifinal Sunday winners. Again, quite possibly you end up with two teams from the same division but I see no reason against it; I want the Super Bowl always to be the best two teams left. That clearly wasn’t the case this past February, and, well, it sucked.
Make it so?
I toss this suggestion out into the ether with absolutely zero hope either part of it will happen within my lifetime, or perhaps ever. My country’s baseball and football leagues have gone some other people’s entire lifetimes with essentially the divided structure of today, and I suspect there are some in high places who make a lot more money the way things are than they would under what I propose. That, of course, always decides the match.
Still, I said it and I’m glad. Call it One Fan’s Opinion—a part of my never-ending, yet usually vain, hope for logic to emerge from goofiness. The NHL finally got it right after decades of truly screwy arrangements, so, well, it can happen. It probably won’t, but it can.
The only AAFC survivors to this day are the San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens; and, of the two, only the 49ers still haven’t changed their names or metro areas. The Ravens were the original Cleveland Browns; the current Browns team was added as an expansion franchise in 1999, three years after the original Browns moved to Baltimore—although the league let the franchise’s records, dating back to the AAFC days, stay with the new team, as a sop to Cleveland fans after their outrage over how the original Browns left. In other words, the current Browns organization claims to be the original franchise from the AAFC. History and reality, cruel though they may be to the spurned and justifiably angry Browns fans of twenty years ago, say otherwise. ↩︎
The notable exceptions were 1904, when the New York Giants refused to play because their owner and manager so hated the AL, and 1994, when players went on strike and MLB cancelled the Fall Classic. ↩︎
If you ever spent a few minutes swapping trivia with me, you’d know I’m the last person who would want to blow off history, much less USA sports history. I just think we shouldn’t celebrate that history at the expense of what makes sense. ↩︎
One of the most obvious examples is Dallas, Texas, in the NFC East. Hey, folks, I’ve been a Cowboys fan for over fifty years, and I fully get the long-time rivalry the Cowboys and their fellow NFC East teams have, partly a leftover from how the Cowboys were shunted into the Eastern Conference in the 1960s because the NFL had no other good place to put them (and wasn’t cutting the 1960 expansion entry a lot of slack in its early, hungry days). However, the simplest way to keep that alive while finally giving all four teams’ fans a travel break—not to mention letting some more geographically natural rivalries come to life—is to arrange to put one or two on their non-division schedule each year, much as certain major colleges play each other once a year regardless of conference or other considerations. I think it’s equally weird that the same AFC division hosts both Buffalo and Miami, which made sense when the NFL and AFL were separate and the AFL had only two small divisions, Western and Eastern. Now, in a thirty-two-team NFL? Nah. ↩︎
This really wouldn’t be popular with whichever TV network gets the Super Bowl in a given year, since the current schedule is designed to stretch the playoffs enough that the Super Bowl will always occur in February, during a “ratings sweeps” period. That reason alone is why it probably would get nixed. Money does talk. ↩︎