It’s time to talk about the “P” word. That’s right: the playoffs, the common format in North American sports, where teams play an entire regular season for most of the year, which seems to become irrelevant when the top teams – or, in the case of Major League Soccer, the NHL and the NBA, more than half of the teams – qualify for an entirely different knockout tournament which determines the champion for the season.
It’s also a format that has been anathema to the vast majority of European leagues who, for the most part, have been more than happy to crown their champions as they have crowned them over the past century.
However, that could change. It won’t happen next year, or even the year after that, but it’s a growing part of the conversation as the European game deals with a changing economic landscape and the growing effects of polarization with the rich (whether clubs or leagues) dramatically increasing the gap with everyone, season after season. We have already seen UEFA radically change the format of the Champions League to the “Swiss model” from 2024; Belgium introduced a post-season playoff format in 2009 and have since modified it. The German Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A have been exploring the possibility of some kind of post-season playoff format – whether knockout or round-robin – for some time now. .
This conversation isn’t going away, so here’s a Q+A to better understand why this is happening and what things might look like in the future.
Q: Wait, why are they doing this? What happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
A: A lot of people think it’s breaking, or even breaking, and they range from those involved in big clubs right through to mid-sized and smaller clubs.
There are two main factors at play here. One is the economics of the system, where clubs struggle to be sustainable. The other is the sporting side, with resources so unevenly distributed that some clubs dominate year after year. The two are linked: clubs feel obliged to make a choice between sustainability and competitiveness. And that, by the way, also applies to big clubs, or at least that’s the justification given by some clubs, like Real Madrid and Juventus, for the Super League project.
Q: How does it work?
A: Like any business, if you want to be sustainable, you need to either reduce costs or increase revenue, or both. Many clubs have been backed by owners investing in teams to try to grow their brand and commercial income, as well as to seek success on the pitch, leading to more prize money. But it’s hard to do because you can’t control what happens on the pitch, you’re all chasing the same cake, and you can only fund losses for so long. And if you cut costs, you risk becoming less competitive.
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UEFA and domestic leagues have attempted to address this issue through mechanisms such as Financial Fair Play and while this has overall made the football ecosystem more stable, it has also made it less competitive. You only have to look at the rankings from 20 or 30 years ago – as well as the number of points earned by champions – to see this, and it carries over to the sporting record of the playoffs…
Q: What is?
A: Every season in May you see a huge amount of frankly irrelevant games. Between teams that are already champions, teams that have clinched a European spot, teams that have already been relegated and teams that know they don’t go down and don’t go to Europe, we have a whole bunch of empty fixtures.
Matchday 37 was played out between Sunday and Tuesday in the Premier League, and 12 of the 18 teams entered had nothing at stake. It was a similar story for more than half of the teams in the Bundesliga and La Liga. And keep in mind these are leagues with six or seven European spots at stake, so there’s a lot more to play for. This is not the case for most leagues in Europe.
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Q: OK, but attendance was still good, right?
A: Yes, mostly, but I’m not sure you can just use the fans who attend the games – most of whom are season ticket holders anyway, or people who bought their tickets a long time ago. lead – as the only metric here. . For starters, they’re older – in 2016 the Premier League revealed the average match fan was in their 40s – which doesn’t bode well for the future. But also, since everyone is talking in terms of global viewership, how engaged will anyone, especially a younger fan, be for a no-stakes game?
Going to games is a totally different experience – with rituals like hanging out with your friends, singing songs, eating or drinking, sitting outside in the sun (hopefully) – than watching at home, no matter at how connected you are virtually to whatever communities you watch matches with.
Unless you have a local family connection to a place or have the opportunity to experience matches in person, you are very unlikely to become a fan of a club that hardly competes for anything else. thing that centerpiece comfort.
Q: Well, you could do a cup race…
A: Sure, but that’s a tough sell, plus domestic cups have been heavily devalued in most countries, mainly because they’re sandwiched in the league schedule: cup races are an interference. But you are on to something. A playoff of some sort may well reignite that late in the campaign and in leagues with runaway winners, reintroducing a sense of competition and danger after the regular season.
Q: Won’t that devalue the regular season like in American sports? The Utah Jazz had the best NBA regular season record last year, but nobody remembers it: they just remember that Milwaukee was NBA champion…
A: Of course. But you don’t have to use the playoffs to necessarily determine champions, or those all-important European spots. Whoever wins the league can be crowned champion and get all the accolades. Call whoever wins the postseason something else.
There is still value in that. Whoever wins it will still have beaten, one after the other, the other best teams in the league. And because those end-of-season games will make sense, you’ll generate more revenue.
Q: I don’t know…it seems unfair for you to win a trophy when you’re not the best team in the country based on the regular season. Would the fans accept this?
A: They already do, don’t they? We accept it in the Champions League, right? If Real Madrid win the Champions League, they will do so having taken fewer points (30) than Liverpool (who already have 31). So what?
Or take the Premier League, which (in relative economic terms) is football’s biggest prize. We regularly get teams finishing fifth or sixth, 10 or more points out of the promotion spots and promoted via the playoffs. Nobody seems to have a problem with that.
Q: OK, but that means extending the season, and aren’t there already too many games?
A: Well, to start with I was reducing the number of top flight teams in each major league to 18 or even 16. Then you would automatically have more meaningful matches. And you would reduce the workload of the players, without extending the season. But, of course, that’s unlikely to happen, because it’s all about money, and more inventory equals more revenue.
It shouldn’t be a big production either. Give the top two teams a bye to the semi-finals, play the quarter-finals in third to sixth place. Play one-way with the highest-ranked team and you’ve got it all done in 10 days. Or you place in the top eight, give quarter-final byes to the third and fourth teams, and do it in 12 days.
Not all formats will work for all leagues, and not all leagues may want to do this, but you give teams something to play for. And you create a lucrative property: another batch of premium games on successive nights at the end of a campaign.
As for the workload of the players, we are talking about two or three additional games maximum. (Remove the League Cup in England and it will even out…)
Q: How about playing a European final? Won’t that ruin your preparation?
A: No system is perfect. There will be outliers and strange situations. But heck, we just saw Liverpool play a decisive away game with the Premier League title on it and make nine changes from the weekend. These are extreme and extremely rare cases.
Q: What about tradition? Isn’t it important?
A: Yes, but there is a difference between tradition and natural conservatism. For many, the FA Cup was more important than the league in England for many years. Now, that is no longer the case. The Bundesliga has had a single league, round robin format for over 50 years, the French League since World War II. And, of course, the European Cup became the Champions League and changed format. The game adapts over time.
I think the reason people are talking about it – and why I welcome the discussion – is that it’s not just driven by economic factors (although they’re obviously important), but also by economic factors. sportsmen. We can talk about leveling the playing field via salary caps, or dividing income more evenly and whatever until we’re blue, but that’s extremely hard to do and there’s a myriad of obstacles. A solution for the playoffs would help solve some of these problems in some of these countries and is much easier to implement.