Standing up for the little guy: The case for small-market teams

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Name any national professional sports league off the top of your head, and chances are Los Angeles has a team for it — maybe even a couple.

The NBA and WNBA? The Lakers, the Clippers and the Sparks. The NFL? The Rams and the Chargers. How about the MLS? The Galaxy and LAFC.

I could go on and on, but you’re probably better off just Googling a list for yourself.

Now let’s compare that to a place like Oklahoma City. We’ll run through the same list back one more time. The NBA? The Thunder. The WNBA? Nothing. The NFL? Nothing. The MLS? Unsurprisingly … nothing.

OK, we get it, Los Angeles clearly has more teams than Oklahoma City does — so what’s the point? Is it that LA should be hailed as a “better” sports city than its Southwestern counterpart?

Much to my chagrin, the answer is no. And yes, in case you are wondering, I myself was born and raised in LA as an avid sports fan. But even I can’t argue against fundamental facts.

First, let’s define some terms for clarification. Typically, a “small-market” or “big-market” team can be categorized by the city’s respective media revenue. We’re talking about the money generated by local TV and radio station ratings, newspaper readership and internet site clicks or logins. The bigger the city’s population, the bigger the potential audience reach. The bigger the audience, the bigger the financial gains. Conversely, the smaller the city’s population, the smaller the expected audience reach and thus the smaller the amount of revenue.

It is here wherein lies my first argument: We should “stand up” for small-market teams because they are — financially speaking — the underdogs.

The sole goal of any sports team is ultimately to win its league’s respective championship. To get there, the team must win games. Thus, the penultimate goal is to sign, draft or trade for players of “championship” caliber. But for small-market teams, this is easier said than done.

Trading requires that you have valuable assets to give up in the first place. How do you get those assets? You have to either be lucky in the draft, which requires lots and lots of losing to increase your odds for a good pick, or sign players, for which you may be easily outbid by a wealthier team. And to be clear, this is under the assumption that a league has a salary cap to begin with, which limits the amount of money any given team can spend on its players’ contracts.

For leagues that do not have salary caps, small-market teams are at an even greater disadvantage. Why? Because the teams that’ll get the marquee athletes are those that can afford them. Players, for the most part, follow the money to glitzier pastures. And as the numbers suggest, not all teams are on equal financial footing.

Take, for example, Spain’s top football division, La Liga. Here, you can see a clear correlation between money and success. At the top of current-day standings are clubs such as Barcelona and Real Madrid, both of which champion budgets of upward of 600 million euros. At the bottom are clubs with budgets of about a modest 50 million euros, including Real Valladolid, Deportivo Alavés and Levante.

What could’ve theoretically been an equally competitive league turned out to be disproportionately top-heavy, mostly dominated by wealthy cities vying for the spoils of victory. Who’s left behind in the dust to compete for the scraps? None other than the small-market teams, and the competition — in this case — is simply just for a spot in La Liga to avoid relegation. We see this happen time and time again.

The other reason why we should admire small-market teams as valuable to sports is that they’ve managed to create immensely loyal fan bases that would’ve otherwise been overlooked.

For a lot of these small-market venues, only one sports team helps to define the lesser-known host city on a national stage. For Oklahoma City, it’s the Thunder. For Green Bay, Wisconsin, it’s the Packers. Consequently, depending on how well that team does, it has the powerful potential to put a city on the map — it might not be a stretch to say that most know about the city of Green Bay because of the Packers.

The result: an extremely proud, close-knit community where nearly all the attention is concentrated on one local franchise. It’s a kind of permeating presence that can be felt throughout, from fans walking around town sporting uniform jerseys to local grocery stores posting banners on their front doors. Like so many other businesses in these cities, these franchises take on the identity of the mom and pop shop — it’s the comfortable spot that everyone knows and loves.

Unlike in big cities, when a small-market franchise isn’t doing well in its league, there is no other team or sport for fans to fall back on. Thus, there’s a special kind of devotion present in small-market fan bases that big-market city fans may never fully understand, myself included.

For most LA fans, if the Lakers are doing poorly, you watch the Dodgers instead. If the Dodgers do poorly, then you watch the Rams. We’re spoiled by our selection of choices.

For fans in a small-market city, not so much. You watch either basketball or baseball or football; very rarely are there teams available for all three options.

Now, would this be any different if these small-markets introduced other teams from nationally recognized leagues to their city? Probably. But then they likely wouldn’t be considered small-market anymore. And that’s the point.

We root for the underdogs because of their resiliency. By all metrics, these small-market teams shouldn’t be doing well at all, but oftentimes they’ll defy expectations when the odds are seemingly stacked against them. In turn, it gives the games we watch a proper narrative, one in which all eyes are locked in on the small-town, local team carrying the weight of an entire city or state.

We need these small-market teams to survive because, without them, there’s no variation. There’s no competition. The big-market franchises will win over and over and over again. And unless you’re a fan of one of these big-market cities, I’d implore you to ask yourself, where’s the fun in that?

Ryan Chien writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].