What does "five hole" mean in hockey?

Dear Sports Fan,

What does “five hole” mean in hockey? I’ve heard announcers talk about “going five hole” and “protecting the five hole” and even “giving him the five hole and then taking it away.” What on earth is going on?


Dear Alejandro,

The “five hole” is one of those terms that has a very technical source but is used quite commonly. When used in the context of hockey, the five hole is the area between the goalies legs. If a player “goes five hole” that means they are an attacker who tries to shoot the puck into the net between the goalie’s legs. “Protecting the five hole” is something every goalie must be good at. When a goalie moves from side to side, she invariably creates some separation between her legs because she needs to push off her back leg to generate power. A goalie has to be able to push off powerfully and then get into a closed position quickly again. Sometimes goalies will intentionally lure shooters into thinking there is room to score between their legs (in the five hole) and then as soon as they begin to shoot, close that area down and prevent the puck from scoring. That’s “giving him the five hole and then taking it away.”

The source of the phrase is a numbering system that coaches and players use to talk about the location of shots. Area one is above the goalie’s glove hand. That’s usually the left hand, since most goalies (as opposed to other hockey players, oddly enough) are right-handed. Area two is the same side but below the glove. Area three is high on the other side, where the goalie holds her stick and rectangular blocker. Area four is low on the stick side. Area five is between the goalies legs. Areas six and seven are medium in terms of hight on the stick side and glove side respectively and may have been added after the system was initially developed. Each area can also be called a hole because it represents a potential spot where a puck can wriggle through the goalie’s attempt to create a solid defense of the net.

The reason for the terms popularity probably comes from two sources: first, it’s the easiest to remember. If you’re a hockey announcer and you see someone score a goal through another hole, you have to quickly figure out which side of the net it went into and then whether the goalie is a righty or a lefty before you can say with confidence which hole was exploited. The five hole is easy! It’s always in the middle. The second reason may already have occurred to you. It’s mildly funny in a sexual way. This humor has been enjoyed by members of the Five Hole Band whose music was featured in the Toronto Film Festival 2009 Top Ten Canadian Short Film, “5 Hole Tales of Hockey Erotica.” There’s also an unrelated book called The Five Hole Stories by Dave Bidini, another (shocking!) Canadian artist. There are also crass T-shirts that encourage you to “score through the five hole” or “show me your five hole.

From the arcane to the commonplace to the obscene, the more you know, the more you know!

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Sports are an escape

As a sports fan, I pretty frequently am asked why I spend so much time following sports. I find this question to be pretty difficult to answer. It’s such a complicated question for me, but like, “how’s it going?” I don’t think people who ask it are actually looking for a ten minute answer. One of the reasons is that the sports world provides a consistent source of humor and inspiration. On days like today when you awake to news of a dozen artists being killed by men with AK-47s, that facet of sports is a real comfort. Sports doesn’t help you escape the horrible things in the world but it does remind you that there’s a balance. Today I want to share a couple of elements of sports humor and inspiration that cheered me up. They’re not the funniest or the most inspirational things ever but they brought a smile to my face today. Hopefully with some explanation, they will to you too.

The New York Times Trolls the New York Knicks

You wouldn’t expect irreverence from the Grey Lady, but yesterday, the New York Times took a shot at New York’s primary professional basketball team, the New York Knicks, it this short piece. The background of this piece is that the Knicks have lost almost all their games so far this season — 32 losses out of 37 games — and that was before they traded two of their best five players earlier this week to the Cleveland Cavaliers. In return, the Knicks got… basically no one who will help them win this year. Trades like this are a common peculiarity of the NBA, which has a relatively hard salary cap and therefore teams are frequently willing to make trades to benefit their financial situation even if it hurts their basketball situation. After the trade, the New York Times had this to say:

We feel it’s only merciful to give our Knicks beat writer, Scott Cacciola, a break from such woeful basketball. He deserves to see the game played at a higher level. For the next month or so, we would like to point him to some good, quality basketball, wherever it might exist. Any suggestions? Maybe there’s another N.B.A. team that warrants his attention, or perhaps a high school or a college squad. For that matter, maybe you know of a strong coed team at your local Y that Scott should write about. Tell us where to send him.

Coach suggests a reasonable strategy. Hilarity ensues.

Last night, the Detroit Pistons played the San Antonio Spurs in just one of the 2,460 NBA regular season games. It was a totally ordinary game, interesting perhaps to Pistons and Spurs fans as well as NBA junkies but what happened at the very end of the game transformed it into must-see TV; into an event; a happening. The situation was this: with less than a second left, the Pistons went ahead by 1 point. The Spurs were able to take a time-out so that they could talk about what to do once they threw the ball into play from the sideline just over the halfway line into the Piston’s half of the court. The game clock was set to 0.1 seconds. Two rules dictate what can happen here: first, the clock does not start until a player on the court touches the pass that’s thrown in; second, a tenth of a second is officially not enough time to catch the ball and shoot it, so the only thing the Spurs could try to do was to tip the ball into the basket; more a volleyball move than a basketball one. The Pistons coach, a man named Stan van Gundy who famously bears a slight resemblance to an infamous 1980s era porn star (this is already getting funny, right?) quickly recognized the situation and began to instruct his team to simply create a human wall around the basket and keep the opposing team on the outside. The exact phrase he used to convey this idea, which was caught and broadcast live on television, was equal parts profane and hysterical in its simplicity.

Mike Prada broke the whole thing down with game analysis, diagrams, screenshots, memes, and close reading for SB Nation. Give it a look!

NHL stars try their hand at sledge hockey

Okay, so this one is tainted slightly by its commercial association with Gatorade, but you know what… if a brand wants to spend money to inspire people, I’m okay with that. In an idea that was surely ripped from Guinness’ moving commercial last year that showed a group of friends playing basketball in wheelchairs so they could compete on an even playing field with the one of their group who actually needed a wheelchair, Gatorade arranged for a handful of NHL players to play in a sledge hockey game. Sledge hockey is the ice hockey equivalent of playing in a wheelchair. Players play from a seated position on a sled with a single blade running down the middle. They have two short sticks which are used for propulsion around the rink as well as stick-handling, passing, and shooting. The best part of this video for me is seeing the sledge hockey players skate circles around the NHL players as they try to adjust to playing without their legs. Still, by the end of the game, it looks like the NHL stars had picked up some tricks.

Watch videos of game highlights, the day from the perspective of the sledge players, and the NHL players.


Sidney Crosby and the talent penalty

Sidney Crosby is the greatest hockey player on earth today. He’s also the most hated. Wherever he plays ice hockey, unless it’s in his home town of Cole Harbor, Canada, or his professional home of Pittsburgh, PA, he is subjected to boos and curses. Last night, I went to a Rangers vs. Penguins game in New York, and despite what I would characterize as a very friendly atmosphere in the stands, I heard him described as a bitch, a pussy, and worse. Hockey fans hate Sidney Crosby. That’s a strange phenomenon in an era when sports stars, due to a combination of television exposure and a natural instinct among sports fans to admire and respect the very best in the world, are generally more liked than hated. It takes a massive public misstep like LeBron’s fateful “decision” blunder to turn the casual fan against a star. So why is it that Crosby is so reviled?

People hate Sidney Crosby because he doesn’t fit into the hockey fan’s image of how a supremely talented player should play. The greatest players in hockey history have mostly had a detachment from the physical extremes of the sport. Wayne Gretsky was 5’11 and 175 pounds. He used deceptive quickness, a preternatural ability to know what was coming before it came, and the intimidative power of some of the games toughest enforcers on his team to stay largely untouched during his record breaking career. Mario Lemieux had the size (6’4″, 230 lbs) to inflict a physical toll on anyone who tried to prevent him from scoring, but because of his chronic bad back and his elegant style, he didn’t get into too many scrappy situations. Power forwards like Bobby Hull and his son Brett or Alexander Ovechkin certainly throw their weight around the rink but their remembered more for their rocket shots than anything else and they specialize in scoring from distance.

Crosby is different. He is a pest, he’s a scrapper, he thrives in the dirty melees in front of the net. If you use Sporting Charts’ awesome NHL shot chart tool to visualize Crosby’s goals compared to one of his closest peers and biggest rivals, Alexander Ovechin, you will see the difference. Crosby scores many of his goals from only a few feet from the net. Even his most spectacular goals usually involve him hurtling into traffic to split defenders or fantastic shots he makes while being knocked over. There’s not a lot of elegance to the way he scores, he just gets it done. Even his equipment bears witness to his utilitarian desire for goal scoring — he uses one of the flattest sticks in hockey so that his backhand can be almost as good as his forehand.

Crosby is a physical player. He’s got a low center of gravity and he’s incredibly strong but unlike Ovechkin or Eric Lindron, that doesn’t translate into highlight producing body checks. Instead, Crosby uses his strength defensively, to withstand the fierce body checks that his opponents throw at him to try to tire him out, wear him down, or intimidate him. Indeed, he often bounces off the player who’s trying to hit him, leaving them in a worse position than when they started. When Crosby does use his strength aggressively, it usually comes out in a slash of the stick at an opponents unprotected wrist, a dangerous slew-foot, or a seemingly casual elbow that just happened to connect with an opponents jaw. Crosby also has a reputation for the darker arts of hockey: diving and for complaining to refs.

Crosby probably doesn’t sound like a very nice guy from this description, at least on the ice. That’s true, he’s probably not, but the curious thing is that fans normally love players like that. Every fan base has their favorite pest. The pest’s job is to play on the third line of forwards and go up against the best players on the opposing team, play solid defense, and annoy the shit out of them. The goal is to be so annoying, that the opponents best player is knocked off their game. If your team’s pest can convince their opposition that winning tonight is not worth the effort, bruises, and cuts or switch the opponent’s focus from winning to beating them up, your team has a significant advantage. Often these pests are also surprisingly effective as offensive players. They fight their way in front of the net and tip shots in or bang rebounds into the back of the net. Just off the top of my head, I can list some examples of players of this type who were absolutely loved: Dino Ciccarelli, Tony Amonte, Jarkko Ruutu, Johan Franzen, Mats Zuccarello, Sean Avery, Brad Marchand, and Max Talbot.

That is exactly how Crosby plays, except Crosby also happens to be the most talented player in the world. If he weren’t, he’d probably be happy to be a pest, toiling on the third line, killing penalties, making his living annoying his opponents with trash talk and a never-ending flurry of slashes, cross-checks, and face washes. And trust me, he would be embraced and loved by his teammates and fans. Fans of opposing teams wouldn’t like him, but they would respect him and if he ever ended up on their team, they’d embrace him as “their pest.”

Sidney Crosby plays hockey the way the players we love to love play hockey but because he’s so talented, we love to hate him. In Chuck Klosterman’s mastercollection of essays, Eating the Dinosaur, he has an essay exploring a similar phenomenon in the career of the supremely talented but mostly unloved basketball player, Ralph Sampson. Sampson was a 7’4″ center who enjoyed playing the more highly technical, less physical game on the perimeter of basketball games. “Why” fans asked themselves, “does Sampson play so delicately? If I were 7’4″, I would dunk on everyone.” It’s the same thing with Sidney Crosby. Fans believe that if they had the advantage of talent the way that Crosby has, they would play more honorably. And yet, they, we honor the less talented players who play the vital pest role on team’s third lines. Why do we penalize Crosby in our judgement for the talent he possesses?

The greatest hockey player in the world is a pest stuck in the body of a superstar. Why is that so bad?

Goal horns and hockey highlights

The 2005 comic book film noir, Sin City, has a line in it that is equally true of the internet as it is of the eponymous city in the film:

“Walk down the right back alley in Sin City and you can find anything.”

Today, I’m sharing a couple of the best hockey related things I’ve seen in a long time in the back alleys of the internet.

Don’t Tell Me The Score

Live sports are one of the few reasons to keep getting cable television. It’s just not the same to watch sports after the fact and it’s very difficult to see many games without cable unless you live in a bar. I have a friend without TV who is a die-hard Pittsburgh Penguins fan and he listens to the games on the radio. I don’t know how he does it. Hockey is so chaotic when you’re watching it in perfect conditions, I can’t imagine trying to visualize the movements of ten whirling dervishes plus two goalies and a puck. Don’t Tell Me The Score is a brilliant alternative. If you miss a game but manage to make it through the social and social media mine-field without finding out what happens, (probably by loudly proclaiming everywhere you go, “don’t tell me the score!”) you can use this website to watch 5-10 minute highlight packages. The site has a crisp, clean, authoritative look. It’s design says, “we’re here to show you highlights and we know how NOT to spoil the game.” It’s a great resource.

We Just Scored and FF Goal Horns

Every sport has its own sounds. Basketball has the squeak of shoes on wood, and the swish of the ball traveling through the net. Football has quarterbacks barking commands and players hitting and grunting. The game of hockey has the “tsk tsk” sound of skates cutting into the ice and the thunk of the puck hitting the boards. From sport to sport, team to team, there are special sounds created when teams score. My college’s football team, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights, are among the set of teams that fire cannons off when they score. Soccer goals, if you’re at home watching on TV and Andrés Cantor or one of his many imitators is announcing, will be accompanied with a “Goooooooooooooooooooooal!!!!” Goals in the National Hockey League are celebrated with the blast of a horn. Each team has a slightly different horn and over time, hockey fans learn to dread the sound of their rivals’ horns and love the sound of their team’s horn. Pavlov would be so happy.

FF Goal Horns is a section of the hockey site Frozen Faceoffs that has information about the history of each team’s horn, photos, and sound clips. We Just Scored is a simpler but potentially more satisfying site. It presents visitors with an array of teams. Choose a team and you get a screen in that team’s primary color with a big, easy-button looking image in the middle. Click the button and it depresses visually while playing the horn and accompanying arena noise of that team scoring.

Many of the horns, including my favorite team’s horn, sound like fog hornsI don’t know if there’s any real parallel between ships in fog and hockey but I know that if I’m ever out at sea and fog descends, I’m going to be celebrating like crazy.

Tuesday, October 14

  1. Niners win, Rams lose — There were two things that stood out in last night’s football game which ended as a 31 – 17 victory for the San Francisco 49ers over the St. Louis Rams: The first was a phantom penalty call against the Rams at the end of the first half which stopped them from increasing their lead from 14-3 to 21-3. After that bad call, the 49ers scored 28 of the next 31 points in the game. The other notable thing was the Rams wearing their bright, beautiful (to my eyes) yellow and blue uniforms from the 1990s. Fun!
    Line: If it hadn’t been for that phantom offensive pass interference call at the end of the second quarter, things might have turned out a little differently.
  2. Baseball playoffs quaintly rained out — It seems like a remnant of a nicer, kinder past for sports, but the baseball playoff game last night between the Baltimore Orioles and the Kansas City Royals actually got rained out! It’s kind of cool that some things, even if they are elemental, are more important than sports and television schedules.
    What’s Next: The game has been rescheduled for tonight at 8 p.m. ET and will be televised on TBS.
  3. Topsy turvy start for some hockey teams — The Boston Bruins played a rare Monday matinee hockey game yesterday against the Colorado Avalanche and lost 2-1. This brings their record to 1-3 and means that after a win on opening night, the Bruins have lost three games in a row. This is a rare bad patch for the Bruins. It’s been 145 games since they last lost three in a row. That said, it’s probably a little bit too early to worry. Just like no one really expects the Tampa Bay Lightning or Nashville Predators to remain undefeated.
    Line: It’s a long season, let’s all just take a deep breath.

Thursday, October 9

  1. Finally a good Thursday Night NFL Football Game — Thursday Night National Football League games have been taking heat in the media lately. It’s one thing that we all sort of know they’re cruel and unusual for players who get only three days to heal their bodies between a Sunday game and having to play again Thursday. It’s another thing that they’re not fun to watch. Every Thursday game this year had been a blow-out. That’s when the complaints really heated up. The game last night between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans looked like it was going to follow suit after the Colts went up 24-0 in the first half. “Here we go again, another blow out” people were saying all over the world. The Texans came back to make it interesting though and had the ball, down only five points, with two minutes to go. After their quarterback fumbled, the game was over and the comeback attempt had come up short.
    Line: At least it wasn’t another boring Thursday Night game like it looked like it was going to be.
  2. Hockey’s back again — Last night was the second night in the National Hockey League season but the first for many teams. There were twelve games played last night and if you were a fan of one of the teams playing their first game, you were excited about the start of the season.
    Line: I know it sounds wimpy but I just want my team to get through the first week with no major injuries. Seems like players are falling like leaves this year.
  3. International soccer? — It’s not the world cup but the countries of Europe are playing each other in games to qualify for the next European Championships. Some games, like England’s 5-0 win over San Marino are mismatches in size and power, but others like Russia and Sweden playing to a 1-1 draw are exciting and even rivalries. The most interesting game was Slovakia’s 2-1 win over Spain, whose World Cup swoon now looks more like the end of an era than a glitch in the matrix.
    Line: Every “golden generation” of soccer players comes to an end. Looks like Spain’s generation is at its end now.

Cue Cards 10-9-14

Cue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  Wednesday, October 8

  1. Hockey opens with four games — The NHL season started yesterday with four carefully chosen games. Two games were in Canada between Canadian teams and two were in the United States between American teams. Two were in the East, two were in the West. All the teams involved were good teams from markets that support them well.
    1. The Boston Bruins beat the Philadelphia Flyers 2-1.
      Line: The Bruins are definitely the best team in the East and it’s probably not that close.
    2. The Montreal Canadiens beat the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-3.
      Line: Not that one game matters that much, but this result matches the tradition of these two teams that goes back at least fifty years. Canadiens win, Leafs lose.
    3. The San Jose Sharks beat the L.A. Kings 4-0.
      Line: After a humiliating loss to the Kings in last year’s playoffs, the Sharks show some pride in winning this game.
    4. The Vancouver Canucks beat the Calgary Flames 2-0.
      Line: Hard to find a second good team in Western Canada for the Canucks to play. The only other choices, Calgary and Winnipeg, are likely to be among the worst teams in the league.
  2. Everyone else breathed — No games for the NFL or MLB yesterday. The stretched-out football weekend starts tonight with a game between the Indianapolis Colts and the Houston Texans. The two Championship Series’ in the baseball playoffs start on Friday and Saturday.

Why is the start of a season in sports so exciting?

Dear Sports Fan,

Sports seasons are so long — how can anyone get excited at the very start? It’s going to be at least six months until the playoffs in most sports.


— — —

Dear Jan,

The start of a season is exciting for many reasons and only a few of them have to do with making the playoffs. You’re absolutely right about how long sports seasons are. Take the National Hockey League (NHL) which is starting tonight. The NHL regular season is 82 games. It starts in early October and ends in mid-April. That’s a long, long time and a lot of games! The National Basketball Association plays the same number of games. Baseball plays 162 or roughly twice the number. Football is the outlier here with relatively short seasons — 16 games in the National Football League and around 12 for college teams. Setting football aside, the first few games for a baseball, basketball, or hockey team don’t actually mean very much in terms of their eventual record and qualification for the playoffs. A fan’s excitement for and enjoyment of the start of the season can’t be measured in wins and losses but it can be described. Let’s give it a shot.

Saying hello to old friends and meeting new ones

Part of following a team is getting to know the players on the team. The players on your favorite team or even their biggest rivals[1]  become like characters on a long-running sit-com. You learn their quirks. You cheer with them when they celebrate and you share their anger and frustration when the team is down. You track their various injury rehabilitations with bated breath. You might even wear a shirt with their name on the back. Players on your favorite team feel like an extension of your social circle in a weird way. The start of a season in sports is a little like the start of a season of a television show you really like or a new book in a series you love. You can’t wait to drop back in on their lives to see how they’re doing, if they’ve grown a funny beard, lost weight, gained weight, changed in any way. As a Penguins fan, I look forward to dropping back in on Sidney Crosby’s life just as much as I look forward to seeing what’s up with Lady Mary as a Downton Abbey fan.

Teams never stay the same from one season to a next. Players are traded, retire, or become free agents and move to another team. The first games of the season are your first chance to meet the new guys or gals on the team you follow. Some of them are players you know from other teams in the league. This can be great if you’ve always grudgingly respected their play. It can be challenging if you’ve always (sports) hated them and now you have to find a way to root for them. Rookies or players who have moved up from the minor leagues are always exciting to meet because their potential is unknown and therefore theoretically limitless.

Returning to ritual

Watching sports is also an important part of many fan’s social lives. Whether you go to games in person, watch them in a bar, or at home, watch them alone, with a partner, or with friends, watching and rooting can be a big part of a sport’s fans life. The start of the season means a return to social settings that you haven’t had access to during the offseason. It’s like the end of summer when you were a kid and all your friends got home from summer camp or the end of a long sustained period of craziness at work that allows you to rest, relax, and actually meet a friend for a drink instead of just heading home to rest up for the next day.

I have friends that I know I’m going to hear from ten times more during a particular sports season than I would otherwise. It’s great!

Getting a feel for your team

The first few games of a hockey, basketball, or baseball season may not have much of a statistical effect on their outcome for the year but that doesn’t mean fans don’t watch them attentively to get a feel for how their team might do. If you root for a team that just won a championship, you’re looking for evidence of the lethargy that often infects teams after they win. If you’re like most of us and you root for a team that did well but didn’t win the championship last year, you’re looking to see if the team has improved or taken a step back. How has a new coach affected the team’s play? How well are new players integrated into the team? Which players have improved? Which have lost a step? If you root for one of the worst teams in the league last year, the first few games may be your only time of true hope during the year.

Truthfully, the first few games probably can’t shed too much light on what the season will hold for your team, but that won’t stop fans from trying!

Enjoy the start of the season,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. note the outpouring of sincere love from Red Sox fans for the departing Derek Jeter

Cue Cards 9-24-14

Cue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  Tuesday, September 23

  1. The Pirates Make the Playoffs — Before last year, the Pirates hadn’t made the playoffs since 1992. Now they’ve made it twice in a row! That’s an impressive turn-around for the long-suffering franchise. They clinched their playoff spot last night by beating the Atlanta Braves 3-2. They don’t get to rest now though, because playoff seeding is a big deal and they still have a chance to catch some of the teams ahead of them, including their division leader, the St. Louis Cardinals. According to Playoff Magic, the Cardinals magic number over the Pirates is four. And if you don’t know what that means, you should read this!
    Line: I’m excited the Pirates are back in the playoffs. I love their throwback caps!
  2. Hockey? Hockey is back? — That’s right! Preseason hockey began this week. Of the big sports, hockey probably has the smallest fan base but their fans tend to be passionate about the sport. With temperatures still in the seventies across the country, it’s hard to believe it’s hockey season again, but it will be soon.
    Line: Did you know hockey preseason games have started?

What is a Conference in Sports?

Dear Sports Fan,

What is a conference in sports? What makes a conference a conference? And why is it called a conference?


— — —

Dear Erik,

Thanks for your question. A conference is a collection of teams that play more against each other than they do against the other teams in their sport. As you’ll see, conferences have various histories and meanings in different sports. In some sports conferences are defined geographically. In some they are the remnants of history. In some sports the conferences are actually pseudo competitive bodies themselves and in other sports they are cooperating divisions within a single organization. Conferences vary in importance and independence from sport to sport. Before we get into the differences, let’s start with some general truths about conferences that apply across (almost) all sports.

Teams within a conference play more games against each other than against the other teams in their sport. It varies by league and by sport. In the NHL, for example, teams play at least three times per season against every other team in their conference but only twice against teams from the other conference. In Major League Baseball teams only play 20 of 162 games against teams from the other conference.

Conferences crown conference champions in all sports. In many leagues like the NFL, NBA, and MLB, playoff brackets are organized by conference. Teams in the AFC (one of the NFL conferences) only play teams from the AFC in the playoffs until the Super Bowl. So, the conference champion is basically the winner of the semi-final game. In other sports, mostly college sports, the conferences only really have meaning during the regular season, so conferences have different ways of deciding a champion. Depending on the sport and conference, there may be a conference tournament at the end of the regular season or a single championship game between the two teams with the best records in the conference. In some conferences, like Ivy League basketball, the champion is just the team with the best record in games against other teams in the Ivy League.

What Sports Have Geographically Defined Conferences?

A geographic division of teams is perhaps the most sensible way of defining a conference. Since teams within a conference play more games against each other than against teams outside of their conference, organizing geographically saves money, time, and wear and tear on the players by reducing the overall travel time during a season. The NBA and NHL are organized in this way. Both leagues have an Eastern and a Western Conference and both stay reasonably true to geographic accuracy. The NBA has a couple borderline assignments with Memphis and New Orleans in the West and Chicago and Milwaukee in the East. The NHL recently realigned its conferences, in part to fix some long-standing issues with geography like Detroit being in the West. Geographic conferences seem logical because they simplify operations for the teams within them. Many college conferences began geographically but as we’ll see later, that’s no longer their defining characteristic or driving force.

What Sports Have Historically Defined Conferences?

It’s easy to think about the sporting landscape as a set of neat monopolies. The NFL rules football, the NBA, basketball, the MLB, baseball, and the NHL, hockey. It wasn’t always that simple. Most of these professional leagues are the product of intense competition between leagues and only became supreme after either beating or joining their rival. The NFL was formed by the merger between two competitive leagues, the traditional NFC and the upstart AFC. The NBA beat out its biggest rival, the ABA, in 1976 but took many ideas from it, like the three-point line but alas not the famous ABA multi-colored ball. Believe it or not, Major League Baseball was not a single entity until 2000! Before then its two conferences (still called “leagues” because of their history as separate entities but pretty much, they are conferences,) the National League and the American League were independent entities.

Two leagues, Major League Baseball and the National Football League continue to have conferences defined by their competitive history. In baseball, the American League and National League each have teams across the entire country, often even in the same city like the New York Yankees (AL) and Mets (NL), Chicago with its White Sox (AL) and Cubs (NL) and Los Angeles/Anaheim with the Angels (AL) and Dodgers (NL). The NFL has similarly kept its historic leagues, the AFC or American Football Conference and NFC or National Football Conference. Each NFL Conference is broken up into three geographic divisions, East, Central, and West, but they all play more against the teams in their conference, even far away, than the teams close by but in the other conference. In the NFL the two conferences play under exactly the same rules but in baseball there are still some major historic differences in how the game is played, most significantly that pitchers have to also bat in the National League but are allowed to be replaced by a designated hitter in the American League.

What Sports Have Conferences that are Competitive?

So far we’ve looked at geographic and historically defined conferences. It’s clear that geographic conferences don’t compete against each other — they are part of the same entity. You can imagine that because of their history, the conferences in the NFL and MLB may be a little competitive with each other, like brothers or sisters. There are still some conferences though where competition against other conferences is their key driving force. These conferences are largely found in college sports.

Most college conferences have geographic names — the Big East, the South-Eastern Conference (SEC), the Pacific Athletic Conference (PAC 12), the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), the Sun Belt, and the Mountain West. When they formed, they formed for all the reasons we discussed above in the geographic section but also to take advantage of financial arrangements that could only be made together, most importantly television contracts. As the money has gotten bigger, especially in college football, the competition between conferences for the best teams and the most lucrative contracts has become incredibly intense. In recent years, you’ve seen conferences poach teams from one another in a race to provide television viewers with the most competitive leagues to follow and therefore generate gobs of profit. This scattered the geographic nature of these conferences so that a map showing which teams are in which conferences now looks like a patchwork quilt.

Like it did with the ABA and NBA, the NFC and AFC, and the NL and AL, my guess is that this competition between conferences in college sports will resolve itself into some more stable league form. No one knows when this will happen but my guess is that it will be in the next ten or fifteen years. I guess we’ll have to stay tuned.

Thanks for asking about conferences,
Ezra Fischer