In North America, playoffs are so ingrained in the sports culture that the very notion of a league going through a regular season -- and then just stopping -- is often met with blank stares and confusion. I was recently explaining the structure of the Premier League to a friend who does not follow European football. He was shocked. "How could you have a season without playoffs?" he asked, "How do they decide the champions?"
The fact is sports fans in the United States and Canada have a radically different concept from fans in England over how a champion is crowned.
The structure of the competition in English football is as simple and pure as you could ever find. Each team plays the others twice, home and away. Three points for a win, one for a draw. Whichever team has the most points at the end of the season is wins the title. And it's hard to argue with that.
Over 34 games you are going to see consistency, you are going to see quality.
But it's also difficult to deny that playoffs add a certain level of excitement to a competition. Whether playoffs come in the form of a seven game series or a winner-take-all game, the drama that comes from a playoff match-up is unquestionable. And since virtually every level of every sport in the USA and Canada ends with a playoff champion, it is the accepted standard.
But is one system better than the other?
The cream rises to the top
"Over 34 games you are going to see consistency, you are going to see quality," says Richard Fleming, Director of Broadcasting for the Colorado Rapids. "It gives you a greater indication and a greater sense of achievement. It gives a more rounded view of the strength of the club.
"Most managers will tell you, a cup run is very nice, but an elongated set of matches over a period gives you a greater indication of consistency through a season."
Consistency in sports has never been defined better than Arsenal's Invincibles. Undefeated through 38 games in 2003-04, Arsenal dominated the Premier League that year and sealed the league title with four games to spare. While Arsenal did not win any of the cup competitions that year, The Invincibles are widely regarded as the greatest team in English football history and as one of the best in the world.
Why? As 7amkickoff blogger Tim Bostelle puts it, "The best team in any given year isn't the one who fluked a couple of wins or got a very favorable draw and then won one tough game, it's the team who won the most, lost the least, and probably scored the most goals."
And Arsenal did just that. More points than anyone else. More wins than anyone else. More goals than anyone else. Fewer goals conceded than anyone else. And, of course, no losses to anyone else.
The best team in any given year isn't the one who fluked a couple of wins... it's the team who won the most, lost the least, and probably scored the most goals.
Granted, playoffs are not completely absent from English football. The cup competitions provide drama, excitement and a chance for any team to make a spirited run and pick up a trophy or two. But those run concurrently with the season. The only traditional post-season playoffs you'll are the promotion battles in the lower divisions. And they are effectively battles for… third place.
Still, only three teams out of 24 make the Championship Play-offs, and they are almost always among the most entertaining – not to mention valuable – games on the planet. You only have to look back a few weeks to Crystal Palace's stunning win over Brighton or Watford's late win over Leicester to see the intense drama that playoffs provide. And that was just the semi-finals.
The "second season"
But to teams on the other side of the pond, the best regular season record usually means nothing more than home field advantage.
Of the "big four" North American sports only the National Hockey League has any concrete recognition for the team that finishes with the best record in the regular season, the President's Trophy. But in a sport where the Stanley Cup means everything, the President's Trophy is relegated to about the same level of importance as winning the League Cup in England. Sure, it’s a nice little accomplishment, but do you really even remember who won it three years ago?
That's because in baseball, basketball, football, and hockey, impressive regular season records tend to have little bearing on playoff performance. If you look at the results of Major League Baseball, NBA, NFL, and NHL, none of the teams that finished their 2012 season with the best regular season record won the league championship. In fact the last regular season champion who actually won the actual championship in any of those sports were baseball's New York Yankees in 2009. For hockey, it’s the Detroit Red Wings in 2008. And for basketball and football? You have to go all the way back to 2003.
The playoffs are essentially a second season. It's a season where teams cannot take games off. Any bad game could mean there is no next game. There are no chances to rest players and only the strong survive.
Consider the NFL and the 2007 New England Patriots. Much like the Invincibles, they dominated the league and became the first team to finish a modern (16 game) regular season undefeated. They went on to win two playoff games and set themselves up to be dubbed as the greatest team in NFL history.
But instead the Patriots lost to the New York Giants in the final seconds of Super Bowl XLII. Rather than being considered an historic accomplishment, their final record of 18-1 is now a source of ridicule rather than of pride. It's summed up well by former Patriots player Rodney Harrison. "The winner is world champion and the loser is just grouped into the 31 other teams."
In North America there are no parades for the regular season champion, and for a good reason.
Meanwhile, the team that won, that received immense praise for winning the big game, barely even made it to the playoffs. Not only did the Giants fail to win their own division, they lost four of their last eight games and effectively finished the regular season 10th out of 32 teams. But when the playoffs did arrive, the Giants became a different team. And in three of their four playoff games, they beat teams to which they lost in the regular season.
The strategy of (not) winning
"In North America, the regular season champion is an after-thought," says Josh Ellis, a former minor league baseball broadcaster. "There are no parades for the regular season champion, and for a good reason. The goal of the regular season is to get to the playoffs, get in the best position possible, and peak at the right time.
"Throughout the regular season, there is a lot of emphasis on how the team will play in the playoffs and strategy is used so that the players on the team are as healthy and ready to go come playoff time."
How do you ensure players stay healthy? By either having them not play too hard, or not play at all. Once the goal of securing a playoff spot has been accomplished, losing a regular season can actually be acceptable.
But the reality is that playoffs don’t necessarily tell you who the best team is that season. They tell you who the best team is that day. So if your team can perform just well enough, they have a shot at the title. Just as much of a shot, in fact, as the team that finished the regular season on top. As Billy Beane of Moneyball fame once said, "My job is to get us to the playoffs. Everything after that is f****** luck."
The underlying question
Do playoffs enhance or cheapen the regular season?
Playoffs are fun because sometimes the underdog team winss -- and one thing I love is to see the underdog win.
There is no easy answer. Ellis points out that when leagues have conferences, divisions, and 30-plus teams that may not even play each other during the regular season, a playoff system is the best way of determining who the champion is. Perhaps the only way.
But he adds that in those same leagues, "The more teams that make the playoffs, the less important every regular season game is."
The flip side is that, as Bostelle says, "Playoffs are fun because sometimes the underdog team wins -- and one thing I love is to see the underdog win. Wigan did that this year in the FA Cup and I was rooting for them all the way."
How big of an underdog were Wigan in FA Cup Final? Three days after they defeated "the most expensively assembled team in sports history" they were relegated. It was the first time in history a relegated team won the FA Cup.
In the end there are numerous reasons why each system is superior to the other. It really just comes down to personal preference. But fortunately, in England, you don’t have to choose just one system. With the League title and the cup competitions, you kind of get both. Consistency and drama.
As Bostelle says, "It's really perfect."Copyright 2016 The Arsenal Football Club plc. Permission to use quotations from this article is granted subject to appropriate credit being given to www.arsenal.com as the source