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A look at MLS parity compared to other leagues using the Gini coefficient

Major League Soccer has a high level of parity compared to other leagues. It came in second only to MLB when compared to American sports and the English Premier League, Spain's La Liga and Germany's Bundesliga. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Major League Soccer is well known for its parity. League executives, including commissioner Don Garber, regularly tout it as one of the league’s strengths. 

This iteration of MLS, though, has new salary mechanisms and a seemingly widening gap between clubs with considerable resources (e.g. Atlanta) and those more budget constrained (e.g. Minnesota). 

With all of these changes, should we expect the level of parity to change?  And how does the parity of MLS compare to other leagues both in the United States and internationally?

One way we can gauge this mathematically is called the Gini coefficient. It’s often used in economics to define income inequality but it can measure how resources are dispersed within a population.  In our case, it will measure how balanced MLS clubs are within the points table at the end of the year.

A league with high parity will have a lower Gini coefficient. A league with perfect parity, meaning all teams end with the same amount of points, will have a Gini coefficient of 0 percent.  The less parity, the closer Gini Coefficient gets to 100 percent.

Below is a bar chart of all 22 MLS clubs and their point totals in 2017, from top-of-the-table Toronto FC (69 points) to bottom-feeders D.C. United and L.A. Galaxy (32 points). 

At first glance, Toronto’s dominance is best seen in the point difference between the champs and the No. 2 team, New York City FC.  That 12-point gap is the largest in recent MLS memory and may suggest parity is on a downturn.

But if we calculate the Gini Coefficient with an online calculator like this one it will turn the bar graph into a curve like this:

The dotted line represents each club’ points, from last to first.  The straight line is what it would look like if every club had the same amount of points.  The difference, or the gray area, is the Gini coefficient.  So, the 2017 MLS season rates at 10.8 percent

Now, that number is rather meaningless without context.  Below is a chart comparing it to other leagues calculated in the same way:

YEAR & LEAGUE GINI COEFFICIENT
2017 NFL 22.1%
2016-17 La Liga 21.7%
2016-17 EPL 20.1%
2016-17 Bundesliga 15.4%
2016-17 NBA 15.2%
2017 MLS 10.8%
2017 MLB 7.9%

 

Unsurprisingly, sports leagues in America have a greater level of parity than leagues like La Liga and the English Premier League, which are dominated by a few clubs. The one exception is the NFL. Although the NFL has parity-driven rules like a hard salary cap and deep annual draft, its short seasons allows for very uneven results (name another league where a team can go winless like the Cleveland Browns).

This confirms that MLS is a league with one of the highest levels of parity. Only Major League Baseball – where a win percentage of 57 can claim a division title but 45 percent could put you in last place – is more competitive in any given year.

But is MLS’ level of parity increasing or decreasing?  If we compare last year only to the 2016 season, which did not feature a record-breaking team like Toronto, it may seem parity is on the decline.  The bar chart below showing that year’s points distribution and its corresponding Gini coefficient of 9.9% would confirm that.

But Toronto was an outlier last year. If the Canadian club is removed from the calculation, the Gini coefficient drops to 9.7 percent.

And if we take a longer view and compare the league’s parity over the last seven years, it seems that MLS competition is only heating up. The density of the overall standings has actually risen in recent years. Below, you’ll see the league’s Gini coefficient six years ago was fairly close to what we see today in the German Bundesliga.

YEAR & LEAGUE GINI COEFFICIENT
2017 MLS 10.9%
2016 MLS 9.9%
2015 MLS 9.0%
2014 MLS 13.2%
2013 MLS 12.0%
2012 MLS 14.3%
2011 MLS 12.7%

 

What makes MLS a league with an extreme level of parity isn’t necessarily the difference between clubs within a season – there are vast differences between the good and bad in any given year – but instead how much an MLS club can improve or decline between seasons.

Below is a chart that shows MLS clubs and the change in points between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.  Of the top five teams, three teams had catastrophic drop offs (FC Dallas, Colorado and Los Angeles).  Of the bottom five teams, all five executed huge rebounds.  On average, MLS teams changed 10.2 points (or 0.3 points per game) between years!

So between seasons, top-tier clubs likely will fall a notch and bottom-tier clubs likely will come up a bit. This is also what we see in other American sport leagues that we believe are high in parity (like the NFL).  But compare this with a European soccer league, such as Spain’s La Liga.

The top 5 teams in La Liga had minimal movement, with only Atlético Madrid having any considerable drop off.  The bottom clubs, that were lucky enough to survive relegation the year before, had a tendency to get worse.  All of the major movement came from clubs in the middle that tend to stay in the middle.

In summary, MLS does indeed have more parity than international leagues, but the changes from one season to the next are what make this league special and unpredictable.

And even with all of the changes in recent years, that trait is stronger than ever and will be a trademark of the league for years to come.

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