This week we revisit an article from last year addressing a central concept for sports fans: the "dynasty." What is it, and what do your favorite sports historians have to say about it?
by: Keith Aksel
Americans have made arguing about what makes up a sports “dynasty” as much a pastime as watching sports themselves. The scene has played out in innumerable bar rooms and sports radio shows; while one person thinks a team must win back-to-back championships to qualify as a dynasty, another argues that a team has to win three out
of four years to be a true dynasty. And so the debate rages, until everyone loses track of the number of dynasty definitions that have been proposed. Fans seem to vaguely identify winning championships as main criteria for dynasty, but beyond that, defining dynasty looks like an ever-moving target, without any concrete meaning.
But, for a concept so burned in the minds of fans, the dynasty concept is almost universally misunderstood. As it turns out, the definition of “dynasty” is historically a very specific thing, and is not up for interpretation.
History tells us that dynasty is an idea referring to monarchical rule. Ruling families and their hereditary lines are called “dynasties” to mark the eras in which they were in power. For example, the Ottoman Empire was run by the dynasty of the house of Osman that ruled the empire until it fell after World War I. The Tudors of Britain and the Hapsburgs of Austria are just a couple of other examples of such dynasties.
Most ruling dynasties were defined by their top-down control over their empires. From the selection of administrators, to the control of their armies, ruling families imbued their empires with rules that all were to follow, building a culture and reputation that reflected their specific sort of rule. Empires in that sense took on the characteristics of the dynasty in power.
In the sports world there is really only one clear equivalent to dynastic rule: franchise ownership. Just as a monarchical dynasty controlled its realm from the top-down, franchise ownership has the power to direct everything within the operation of the team. Appointment of general managers and coaches, the selection of draft picks, and the design of logos are all at the discretion of ownership. New ownership often makes such changes to contrast themselves with the previous rulers, and produce a different sort of product on the field.
Let’s take the New England Patriots as an example. In 1994, Robert Kraft bought the Patriots as a much-maligned, perennial cellar-dwelling NFL franchise. Kraft would overhaul his front office (naturally), redesign the team’s logo and uniforms, and somehow lure the great Bill Parcells to coach the team. Within two years, the Patriots were in the Super Bowl. Eight years after that, the franchise won its third championship, sending the Patriots into the ranks of elite American sports franchises.
The Patriots example is meant to show that ownership, not championships, is what defines dynasty. The changes made under Kraft rule were specific to the new regime, and are the only needed characteristics to regard a dynasty. Success, or the lack thereof, actually has nothing to do with describing dynasty. The Patriots were already a part of a dynasty (the Kraft dynasty) before their first Super Bowl win in 2001, much less after their fourth in 2014. Even bad franchises (yes, even you Buffalo Sabres) are dynasties depending on who runs the team at any given moment. What is important for marking a dynasty is simply who is at the top of the organization, not championships, players, or coaches. All are products of, not the cause of, dynasties.
The takeaway here is that fans who debate what makes up a dynasty need to find another term to use. Long streaks of success can be called a million other things, “hegemony” or “apogee”, for instance. The traits of a dynasty, though, is a debate settled long, long ago.
 There are few historical dynasties whose legitimacy is still up for debate, but the components of dynasty are largely understood by historians.
 Some dynasties were generally more hands off on purpose (i.e. Mongols), but reserved the right to crack down on their subjects if the spirit moved them.