It’s an age-old question that vexes the sports fan that follows a wide variety of pastimes. And at this time of year — with everyone and their mother bemoaning the BCS, or railing about the potential that a team with a losing record could still win the NFC West and compete for a shot at the Super Bowl — we might as well ask the question.
Which is the most sound way of declaring a champion?
First, if we’re going to discuss the merits of playoff systems and whether or not playoffs are an integral part of determining championships, we must have some parameters to the debate. What I aim to delve into here is not a matter of a one-off tournament nature; I’m not going to dive too much into the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup here.
Rather I aim to look at season-long, annually awarded titles to the best in a sport and its attendant leagues. Every sport, in some fashion, tries to crown a season champion. That’s what we’re going to look at, from the UCI ProTour to the FIS World Cup to the English Premier League to the National Hockey League and beyond.
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So what are these various systems? The easiest distinction is simple — playoff or no playoff? Or: How are champs crowned?
- Is it a true round-robin system such as one finds in soccer leagues around the globe, where every team plays every other opponent at home and on the road, accumulated points determining the season’s best? In such a calendar a point value is assigned to wins and draws, losses rendering zilch, and the most points at the end of the schedule wins the league. It is egalitarian, but it also discounts the hot team that may have beaten the champion both home and away only to fall a point short at the final whistle because of a cold start, or a personnel change, or any other multitude of factors. It is fair on paper, but at the same time the “best” team is merely the most consistent while the truly greatest team of the year is punished in May for September’s sins.
- If it is not that, is it a regular season followed by playoffs, as is so familiar to fans of most any North American pro sports league? From the NFL to Major League Baseball, from the NBA to the NHL, a regular season is merely a means for seeding. Even MLS deviated from soccer norm when it went with a playoff to appeal to North American sensitivities. Often conferences are formed, with divisions within each conference, and the winners of each are rewarded with passage to the playoff. But as the woebegone NFC West is showing us this year, and the Southeast showed us for a period earlier this decade in the NHL, it can also reward the last fish to die in a toxic pond.
- Is it a regular season followed by a winner-take-all title game between the best two teams, as the BCS has offered since 1998? In such a system the top two teams in a disparate number of leagues is arbitrarily chosen as the most worthy. In some years there are just two truly worthy teams; in other years any number of teams could be called #1 or #2. And how one picks the title-game participants is as controversial as the concept itself. Whether human or computer, we’ve learned recently that everything is susceptible to errors — whether simple slipped computations, data entry lapses or subjective biases. Even the best intentions are subject to scrutiny.
- Or is it a calendar of individual events, each with their attendant reward and point scale, that cumulatively adds up the champ which is of greatest value? This is the system by which Hein Verbruggen dreamed cycling could move beyond a Tour-centric focus by its greatest athletes in the ProTour. It is the means used by the FIS in skiing and snowboarding World Cups, the tennis tours, and in the new IAAF Diamond League for track and field. Here, though, either events are held on equal footing in the points, or one must assess arbitrary values to each challenge in the season. Thus a Grand Slam or a grand tour is deemed more valuable than a Sunday in Hell or a week in Kuala Lumpur, but still a champion can emerge more from consistency and a willingness to compete anywhere and everywhere than via true greatness.
Naturally what works for one sport won’t always work for another. Something like Formula 1 functions fine race to race, but some sort of system must be in place to reward performance for both driver and team. The same goes for cycling — which for all the focus that remains on the Tour has at least seen its other grand tours and minor stage races enlisting top fields thanks to Verbruggen’s now-bastardized dream.
This certainly wouldn’t work in football, or baseball, what essentially is a conglomeration of tournaments ranging from a day to a short period of weeks all gathered and confederated into a calendar. It would require a radical restructuring of the nature of each sport. So let’s further restrict the conversation for the sake of expediency and to get at the heart of what really seems to get to Americans.
And because what works for one but not for all, let’s presume for the sake of argument that a playoff is the best thing for the way most North American leagues. The structure, after all, generates plenty of both buzz and revenue.
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This assumption then springs up other questions. How many teams — and what proportion of teams — deserve a postseason reward? Does anyone get a bye? Do you reward division winners? How many games do you play per round?
And these are but the most common of methods and questions at an organizer’s disposal. What about things like, say, the Page system, utilized in international curling and a few other niche sports, where earning a top-two rank earns a virtual bye?
It’s a conundrum all around. Even how a league decides to structure its regular season affects the flavor of playoff to be cultivated. Where emphasis is on divisional matchups, division winners are often rewarded with top seeding. But does the higher seed matter if, say, the home-court advantage is automatically given to the team with the better record in a series?
And within all that we have the crux of the argument — to playoff or not to playoff. With a postseason tournament you get drama, catharsis, some sense of finality. But in every Cinderella also lurks the realization that the tournament is not truly picking the most accomplished team of the season… just the one that hit a hot streak at the right moment.
With the round robins that cast aside any need for a playoff, the converse is true. As I said earlier, a hard-charging team barreling up the standings with a hot finish can still be punished for a cold streak six months prior. While a team that excelled all year can be punished in a playoff still, that team earns its just rewards in a round robin.
Really, then, is one better than the other? We’ve seen conference championship games in college football add more spice to that first Saturday in December, but does that one-off game determine a champ better than playing every other conference opponent? And by extension, people can holler for a college football playoff…
… but is that going to solve matters? It’s all going to come down to the ballots and the microchips, whether picking two or four or eight or sixteen, and that same potential for error exists all along. So is it worth allowing the best hot streak of December and January to overshadow a team’s body of work from September to November, just so we can get our cathartic kicks from collegiate crusaders?
In the end, every system has its positive and negative aspects. Every sport must decide for itself what works best within it. A playoff can be the greatest thing in the world, culminating in hoisting the Stanley Cup or Vince Lombardi Trophy or other such statuary aloft as victors. But it is a balancing act, not designed in any of its guises to fill every situation.
Equality of opportunity is one thing, but it comes in many forms. Postseason formats are hardly “one size fits all”. What we have in our favorite sport may not be perfect, but it is often better than the most likely alternative. And if we had the answer to the eternal riddle of what is “best” at determining a champ, we’d already see its universal use.
So enjoy your favorite sport and the way its season unfolds. Revel in the good times and let those frustrations with its postseason structure serve constructively as an instructive tale. Even the best things in life can never attain perfection… even if your favorite team is undefeated when the final whistle calls…
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