It's the one piece of consulting advice that seems to cross every professional field. From politics to economics, from technology to education, consultants agree: The fairest, best way to play any competitive game is on a level playing field. International-trade counselors invariably blame their nations' trade deficits on a badly sloping playing field and call on their competitors to level it. Technology consultants collect big bucks for advising their clients in telecommunications, computing, software, and other industries that the arrival of standards (or the Web, or satellite communications, or software agents) will eliminate unfair strategic advantages and lead to a level playing field.
But are level playing fields on the level? In the world of sports, can a playing field even be level? And, just as important, should it be? To find out, we turned the matter over to the Fast Company Consultant Debunking Unit (CDU).
Our first stop: Steve Trusty, 55, executive director of the Sports Turf Managers Association, a Council Bluffs, Iowa-based organization for professional athletic grounds- keepers and agronomists. According to Trusty, there's a very good reason why playing fields aren't level: Flatness would ruin them. "Most playing fields with natural-grass turfs, including football and field hockey, are crowned in the center, so water can drain to the sides instead of pooling on the field," notes Trusty. "There can be a 12- to 24-inch difference in height between the center of the field and the sidelines."
Next stop: George Toma, the acknowledged dean of the playing field. Toma, 69, who lives in Westwood, Kansas, works with the Kansas City Royals and has advised the National Football League for all 31 Super Bowls. Toma says flatly, "I don't believe in a flat field. I like to see a little pitch - you can play baseball, football, or soccer on a field that falls a half-inch from the center every 10 feet."
To get a level read on the soccer pitch, the CDU called veteran agronomist Jim Watson in Littleton, Colorado. Watson, 77, coordinated the preparation of the 9 soccer fields and 39 practice fields used for the U.S.-based 1997 World Cup. Watson says he asked the Zurich-based Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) for guidance. But FIFA turned him down, well, flat. FIFA's rules say nothing about grading or crowns, and, according to Watson, "all the FIFA representatives said was that the games had to be played on grass."
For the last word on level playing fields, the CDU moved to Jose Mesa, 31, star relief pitcher for the 1997 American League Champion Cleveland Indians, 1995 winner of the Sporting News Fireman of the Year award, holder of the major-league record for the most consecutive saves at the start of a season - and a man whose last name literally means "a flat elevation." Reached at his home in Westlake, Ohio, Mesa shut down the idea of a level playing field. "If you had no pitcher's mound, you wouldn't be able to pitch to the plate," Mesa told the CDU. "You'd be throwing all over the place. When you pitch, you're pushing off with your leg and throwing downhill. The mound is key to the whole thing."
The CDU's conclusion: A level playing field, the experts agree, is the fastest way to flat-out ruin a competition. In this case, the consultants are flat wrong.
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.