The recent massive trade between Los Angeles and Boston, in which Boston is dumping most of their high-paid stars to LA, has brought the Ewing Theory back into the lexicon. Here is Bill Simmons’ 10-year old explanation of the Ewing Theory. The Ewing Theory — better described as the Ewing Effect — is when a star player leaves a franchise, the media all assume this spells doom for the franchise and the team “inexplicably” (although usually quite explicably, if you look closely) wins anyway. It was first brought into light by Simmons, a writer I generally like, in the context of the Mariners’ surprising 2001 season.
The Ewing Theory has kicked around for a while and I’ve never liked it. I’ll get into the weeds below but the basic reason is that it exemplifies many of the worst things about sports media coverage and sports fandom. Sports writers and sports fans simple love to tell us how a great player isn’t really that great. They love to talk about how some player they don’t particularly like is really a loser who fails to elevate his team. When a team flops or stumbles or simply can’t win the championship — keeping in mind that winning a championship is a team effort and, by definition, only one team can do it every year — the media/fans will often pick out the best player and vent their frustration on him. And those who never liked him anyway will gloat about his lack of leadership. This tendency has become far worse in the last few decades as player have started to make more and more money.
But is it possible that a player can, on paper, be really excellent but drag his team down? Well, it’s possible. A great player could eat up so much salary that the team can’t sign other great players. A great player could be blocking an even better player. A team could center their strategy on the great player at the expense of even better components. The latter may especially be true in a sport like football, where there are a lot of moving parts on any team.
But the Ewing Theory seems to postulate something different: that the very absence of a star player can elevate the existing team to be better. And after looking at it, I’m convinced that this effect either doesn’t exist or is very small. The Ewing Theory keeps foundering on much more secular and concrete explanations.