When Kevin Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors for the 2016-2017 season, the basketball world let loose a collective gasp. Durant was one of the best players in the league and had nearly led the Oklahoma City Thunder to victory over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals. Golden State boasted the most lethal backcourt with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson and had gone to the NBA Finals the last two seasons, winning the 2015 Championship. It was, without a doubt, the most controversial trade in recent history and the result was a new era of dominance in the postseason.
The Warriors went 16-1 in the 2017 Playoffs, capped off with a decisive 4-1 series win over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. It wasn’t that LeBron played poorly, or that his status as the greatest player in the world wavered (not even close) — he was just facing a team too stacked to overcome. The following year, the Warriors repeated the process, this time with a 4-0 victory over James and the Cavs. In that time, the average viewership of the NBA Finals dropped by three million. Basketball, on its greatest stage, was becoming less appealing to fans. The fans of Golden State were ecstatic; their franchise was laying the stage for a possible three-peat, they were top of the league with no contender in sight. The fans of the other 29 teams in the NBA were less enthusiastic. Basketball was still entertaining, but the culmination of months of work by teams were worthless in the face of the Warriors and their dominance, and the fans expressed their frustration with their viewing absence. This example is the most recent in a trend throughout history that defines the consistency conflict.
As spectators of the sporting world, we face an ever-present conundrum; a conflict of personal desires, one for our favorite team and the other for the sport they play. Fans yearn for their team’s success, it is the sole and simple rallying cry for bases everywhere — winning. When the fates of players fall together seamlessly and luck abounds, the sporting world seems to sense it. The beginning of a long and fruitful playoff run, the dominance that could only yield championships, the birth of a dynasty — all are significant moments etched in the history of competition that we collectively reflect on. In the moment, we hold our breath and gape at the wonders the teams produce with seemingly no effort on their way to victory.
When Wayne Gretzky tallied 137 points in his rookie NHL season, a record that still stands, the Oiler fans knew that greatness lay ahead; they won the 1984, 1985, 1987 and 1988 Stanley Cups. When Michael Jordan and the Bulls overcame their Detroit Pistons rivals in the 1991 Eastern Conference Finals, Chicago saw that their star was more than just a flashy player; they won the 1991, 1992, 1993, 1996, 1997 and 1998 NBA Championships. When Tom Brady, a second-year quarterback drafted in the sixth round, led the Patriots to victory at Super Bowl XXXVI, the New England fans were brimming with anticipation; they have since won Super Bowls XXXVIII, XXXIX, XLIX, LI and LII. So on and so forth go these dynasties and eras of greatness across the four major sports in the United States and others throughout the world. Fans rejoice when their teams are victorious, it is the nature of their existence to do so; to want anything less is to contradict their being. Yet, for the other teams, the other fans, the vast majority of fans who do not win, who see these same teams take home repeated championships, the passion for sports begins to wither. And who can blame them?
This problem seems strangely novel; despite the presence of dominant teams in baseball, basketball, football and hockey for decades, the symptom of discontent is new. Watching Jordan clinch repeated championships through an eight-year stretch never seemed to grow tiresome, though some of that may be due to his status at the time as a living legend. The ratings reflect as much, with 1998 being the highest average viewership (29 million) and 2018 below average (17.6 million). So, while Chicago fans celebrated their success through the ‘90s, basketball fans everywhere continued to tune in, undeterred by the dynasty that was unfolding before them. The same cannot be said for the Warriors in the latter half of the current decade. Perhaps the presence of a reigning team isn’t the only factor, though. Take the World Series, for example: Average viewership has declined from a peak of 36.4 million in 1986 to as low as 12.6 million in 2012 and 14.1 million more recently in 2018. In the last nine World Series, 11 teams have played for the title, with the Boston Red Sox and San Francisco Giants capturing five championships between them. Not single-team dominance, but the 2010 decade has seen just 37 percent of MLB teams compete in the World Series. The NFL is similar, with 34 percent of teams competing in the Super Bowl since 2010, and the NBA is worse, with 30 percent of teams competing in the Finals since 2010. Comparatively, the NHL is seeing average viewership increase across decades (2.5 million in 2000 versus 4.9 million in 2018) and since 2010, they have had 14 teams compete for the Stanley Cup, or 45 percent.
The simplest conclusion would be to say that the higher percentage of diversity in championship appearances, the more fans will be interested; new matchups are exciting, and often the result of upset performances earlier in the playoffs. There may be another, similar angle present, however. When a new season begins, fans are buzzing with excitement, or rather hope to be. For some, such as the NBA in recent years, it can all seem for naught; why conjure hope when the Warriors exist? It’s ignorant to say that fans should just enjoy the regular season and not base their appreciation of the sport on whether their team makes the playoffs; the very crux of a regular season is its path to the postseason. The point of having teams play for months is to marinate the hopes and anxieties of players, coaches and fans who yearn for their team not just to qualify, but to win. Imagine you’re in a car, and your entire purpose is to race down a straight track towards a finish line. Before you turn the engine on, however, an enormous concrete wall is placed across the entire track, blocking your path; the wall will not move and you cannot drive around it. Why even start the race?
Hence, the conundrum of consistency. The same teams, the same champions, the same results, they can wither a sport of its greatness and worth through no fault of their own. Such is not always the case, as history shows, but threading that needle requires a presence like Jordan’s, an ascension that demands to be witnessed and is simply too rare to rely on. So, sports fans are faced with the universal conflict: How good do I want my team to become?