February 2016 is an awfully fallow period for Minnesota sports fans.
The Vikings’ end-of-season ignominy has (slowly, torturously) receded from view; the highlight of the 2015-2016 Timberwolves’ season — Zach LaVine’s defense of his dunk contest title, sadly — is over and done with; and the Twins, who are projected to win 79 games in another exceedingly mediocre season, do not begin for more than a month.
The Lynx — the state’s only successful sports franchise of recent vintage — don’t begin until May, and judging from their attendance numbers and television ratings, they will only brighten a few die-hards’ sports doldrums.
To make matters worse, the NBA’s playoff picture is basically set months before the regular season ends: only four teams — the Warriors, Spurs, Thunder and Cavaliers — appear to have a legitimate shot at winning the title, turning the last half of the regular season and first half of the playoffs into nothing more than a series of highlights worth checking on your phone periodically.
For a dose of anything other than another month or two of more Minnesota sports irrelevance — and for something to hold you over until March Madness — I’d suggest the struggling sports fan look abroad.
The best title race in sports won’t be found in the United States, and it certainly won’t be found anywhere near Minnesota.
The best title race in sports belongs to the English Premier League.
That’s right, Louie’s writing about soccer again. Deal with it.
Out-foxing them all
The primary reason for the Premier League’s title-race primacy is a little, plucky, can-do team called Leicester City Football Club.
After an uninspired 14th-place finish last year, Leicester entered the 2015-2016 season as a popular pick to be one of the three EPL teams to be relegated. (Each season, the bottom three sides get bounced down to the second-tier Championship, which sends its top-three teams up to the EPL.)
Instead, the Foxes have embarked on an utterly improbable run to the top of the table: with 26 of the season’s 38 league games played, Leicester sits atop the standings, two points clear of second-place Arsenal.
Now, this may not sound like much. After all, sub-par teams win championships all the time — like, for example, the Denver Broncos, who managed to win a title with an injury-addled, nearly 40-year-old quarterback with no feeling in his fingers fueled only by Papa John’s pizza and Human Growth Hormone.
In football, parity is king: each year, nearly every team — or at least a good two dozen of them — can envisage a scenario where everything breaks right and they too are hoisting a trophy high in the air after a successful season.
In baseball, it’s been years since the team with the best regular-season record has won the World Series: in the Wild Card era, the playoffs are a crapshoot, a zany roll of the dice where any team can get hot long enough to win it all.
The English Premier League is not set up this way.
In the EPL, the road to success is paved in gold.
Money can buy you love
Because there is no salary cap or amateur player draft, players are free to sign with the highest bidder and clubs can spend literally unlimited amounts of money.
In the 2014-2015 season, EPL teams spent a total of $3.8 billion — an average of nearly $191 million per team — on simply acquiring players, to say nothing of their often exorbitant contracts.
It gets even spendier at the top: last season, the top three EPL teams averaged more than $500 million spent to acquire players.
The price to play at the EPL’s upper echelon prohibits most teams from sniffing a title run, let alone winning one: since the Premier League’s inception in 1992 (top-tier English football has existed under different names since the 19th century), only five teams have won the title, and one team — Manchester United — has won it 13 times.
This year, Leicester City spent $50 million bringing in players and brought back $8.5 million in players sold. Each time Leicester takes the field against a top-four side, there’s at least one — and often a handful — of players on the opposing team who cost more than the Foxes’ entire roster.
Not only does the high price of entry preclude many teams from grabbing a title; the relentless churn of the 38-game season tends to separate the wheat from the chaff, dividing the contenders and the pretenders with little time for Cinderellas.
In the EPL, there are no playoffs: you simply play each team in the league twice — one home, one away — and the team with the best results earns the title.
There are no wild cards, no playoff upsets, no Cinderella stories. Until Leicester.
If Leicester City manage to hold on and win the Premier League title, it would arguably be the biggest Cinderella story in the history of sports.
There is no American equivalent; the closest I can conjure is the 1954 Milan High basketball team immortalized in “Hoosiers,” and even Jimmy Chitwood wasn’t facing odds like these.
The best part of Leicester’s improbable run is that they’re a joy to watch play: in an era marked by high-priced talent that seems like it must be coaxed and cajoled to simply track back and exert full effort, the Foxes boast a team full of irrepressible players with seemingly boundless energy.
With Jamie Vardy, Riyadh Mahrez and Marc Albrighton leading the attack, N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater solidifying the middle and Wes Morgan, Robert Huth and Casper Schmeichel buttressing the back, Leicester City is a dynamic yet sturdy squad.
They are also led by Claudio Ranieri, a lovable 64-year-old Italian whose calling card has been his willingness to get out of the way and let his team play — including off the field, where Ranieri lets his boys indulge in pizza and beer after big wins, modern fitness bedamned.
Sports fans, we all know that February can be dark. Let Leicester City light yours up.