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Sports media’s obsession with lists

Plenty of people have bemoaned the ‘listification’ of the online media world. There’s BuzzFeed, with 28 GIFs that YOU ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO SEE, and Thought Catalog with 20 reasons why your 20s are (insert something banal here), and so on and so forth. It’s all shameless clickbait (I’m not going to pretend I haven’t clicked on the 17 puppy GIFs that will change your life), but I find myself unsurprised by the trend. As a sports fan, lists have been the status quo in the media for as long as I can remember.

Every week, the major sports media outlets release their “power rankings” of each team in the league, usually for each major sport. Let me go down the line here: ESPN, Sports Illustrated, the Sporting News, TSN, CBS Sports, SB Nation, and Bleacher Report (a shudder passes through me as I have to include them among the major media sources, but clicks are clicks) all publish a weekly ranking in nearly every sport. (Deadspin has a somewhat satirical weekly ranking of all 125 teams in college football, but otherwise abstains, along with Sports on Earth and Grantland – all sites that claim to have ‘intelligent’ sports writing.) In a somewhat meta move, Yahoo! Sports has many of its contributors write an analysis of every other site’s power rankings of a certain team. For some sites, the ranking is based on a collaborative ranking by a number of writers; for others, it’s based on one person’s opinions, or ‘advanced’ statistical analysis. Either way, it’s always a numerical ranking of every team, followed by a short, pithy sentence about the team. ‘Listification’ has gone far beyond beyond simple power rankings, too: ESPN has even begun #NBArank, which is basically a power ranking of the 500 best basketball players in the National Basketball Association (NBA), while Grantland just finished their run of 10-to-25 minute youtube videos that previewed – and ranked – all the teams in the NBA. This is in addition to simple list articles, such as the five best defensemen in hockey or, as was recently posted on, 100 (mostly rhetorical) questions leading up to the Sochi Olympics.

This is not an internet-based phenomenon at its roots, to be sure. College football has been in the rankings business with a media poll since 1934, a coach’s poll since 1973, and a computer based ranking since 1998. Weekly power rankings in newspapers haven’t been uncommon in the last 20 to 30 years. But their explosion into prominence – a front page story every time – is surely linked to the internet, on which every outlet is competing for your precious clicks.

Besides being obscenely easy to write – this team is better than this team, for x reason, where that reason is usually a better record – these lists are so ubiquitous because they get an ungodly amount of web traffic. Your average fan wants to see exactly where their favourite team is on the ranking, and then react to that. It also easily drums up controversy, wherein the site manufactures suspense as to which team will get the coveted number one spot. (And the reward for that spot is, um, validation?) Power rankings, through their very names, also validate the elitist position of writer above everyone else. The creator of the power ranking gets to be judge, jury, and executioner on all the teams in a certain league, and these rankings often are titled with the name of the media organization – so the writer (or writers) decides what, symbolically, the whole organization thinks of a certain team.

Insidiously, power rankings can even be used to create stories. ESPN has an individual writer for every National Football League (NFL) team. Each week, once the NFL power rankings are released, every writer writes a “power rankings reaction” that responds to the ranking of a team, and asks whether it was right or wrong. That’s right – an article responding to an almost always totally arbitrary ranking and whether that arbitrary ranking got it right (in the writer’s eyes). Clicks abound, though. I can’t say I’m innocent – I’ve clicked on and fervently read power rankings before, looking for ‘my’ team and what the writer thinks of them. So why the obsession, for both writer and fan? I’ve already said that lists are easy to write and reinforce the exalted position for the sportswriter, but for the fan, it’s a little more complicated.

For one, many fans feel the need for validation – that their team should be at whatever number in the power rankings, and get the ‘respect’ from the national media. Success alone is not enough – it must be recognized by everyone else to mean something. It’s also a really, really simple way to digest the events of a season – rank every team, and you can easily see who’s doing well and who isn’t, without any nuance at all. Power rankings create an easy narrative to follow for a season; as some teams ‘rise,’ confounding our pre-season expectations, others fall from grace, and others still stay steadily mediocre. Since most people can’t watch every game of every team, it allows the fan to believe that they know what’s going on across the league.

It seems that many fans look toward sports to get the final, definitive result that cannot be found elsewhere in society; every game is a closed narrative with a tidy end, with easy-to-cast heroes and villains. The ending of most sports – where one team gets a win, and sometimes this win is the championship – is the simplest way of showing that one team is better. The end gives them comfort. Or so people desire. The reality is more of a mess, with multiple players all having influence on any single play, these plays adding up to an end result that often doesn’t reflect the true talent of each team. That is, the better team on paper doesn’t always win; there’s luck, there’s anomalies. I find sports compelling for that reason – that the end is often uncertain, that you can lose even if you play better, or win based on pure luck.

I suspect that a lot of people would agree with me – the sentiment that “on any given Sunday,” anything can happen – but the overwhelming popularity of power rankings indicates otherwise: plenty of people just want a tidy narrative to follow. It’s a way of following sports that completely strips away nuance; a comfort instead of something interesting.