This time of year sees the culmination of many a sporting season, a time when pressure is at its peak, and the difference between elation and devastation can be measured by a single goal, a point or the blow of an official’s whistle. Sir Alex Ferguson in his own inimitable style, labelled the period ‘squeaky bum time’, evoking emotions experienced by managers, players and fans alike at this crucial time of year.
The month of May has long seen titles decided and cups won. Players battle through long hard seasons, through the cold winter months and into the early spring warmth just to be in with a chance of some silverware. For some sports though it seems the long arduous regular season isn’t enough to decide who’s the best and who deserves the trophy. It’s all a precursor to the grand finale, the main event, the climax of the year – the playoffs.
The concept of a playoff competition, or ‘postseason’ in American sporting vernacular, at the end of a regular season is still a relatively new idea to British sports audiences. Playoffs to decide promotion issues in the Football League were first introduced in 1986, Rugby League joined the party in 1998 and Rugby Union added it into their season in 2001. The big four American sports have long been using the playoff system to crown their champion though, with Baseball leading the way in the 1880s, Ice Hockey came next in 1918. Football followed suite in 1933, although you had to wait until 1967 for the first ‘true NFL playoff’, and Basketball introduced their first postseason tournament in 1947.
Why are playoffs needed though? Do they relegate the previous months of competition to effectively just jostling for position before the real action starts at the end of the season? And are they all just a big marketing ploy dreamed up by the league executives to earn more money to line their pockets with?
Unfortunately there isn’t a single answer to these questions. The reasoning behind a playoff system in larger countries, such as America, can be put down to the league structure and the impracticality of a league in which every team plays every other team an equal number of times. The big four American sports all split their national leagues into two, ice hockey and basketball go for a geographical East/West split, and baseball and football separate all their teams into an American and a National league (baseball) or conference (football). Each half of the split is then split up into divisions based on geography and each team will play more of their regular season games against teams in their own division. This means they will then play fewer games against sides on the opposite side of the country to them, so how do you decide which team is the best overall? Playoffs of course!
When it comes to playoffs here in Britain, it is fair to say there is an element of money-making involved. We face none of the geographical problems encountered by larger countries and so a league system in which all teams play each other home and away is easily implemented. So why are playoffs needed when a fair and comprehensive league system is already in place? League executives will tell you that playoffs mean there are less meaningless games at the end of the season – if more teams have more to play for in a season’s closing stages then it stands to reason that there will be fewer games played out by players with have half a mind on where exactly they want to position themselves around the holiday pool. This should result in more exciting matches for the fans right up until the final day of the season, more value for their ticket price and more connection with the players as they fight until the bitter end.
The elephant in the room in these discussions though is the revenue all of these extra games generate. Governing bodies may claim that playoffs are all for the enjoyment of the fans but they benefit greatly from the financial boost that playoffs give to a sport, be it through sponsorship, advertising, or television money. The men in suits at the top of the game aren’t the only ones counting the pounds as a result of playoffs though. Should a team make it to the postseason they can be almost guaranteed a sellout gate for their home fixture(s) and obviously a large cut of the television money to boot. So even an unsuccessful playoff campaign on the pitch can still be a success when judged by a club’s accountants.
But what of the fans, the theory suggests we should all be overjoyed that our team might scrape into the playoffs in the last week of the season and still be in with a chance of winning. Ask Blackpool FC fans if they like the playoffs, they’ll tell you they’re the greatest invention since sliced bread. They’re the only team in the history of the English football leagues to have been promoted from every division via the playoffs. During these four campaigns they have qualified in pole position for the playoffs three times, just missing out on automatic promotion by one place. However last season they only finished sixth, scraping into the playoffs at the end of the season and storming through to beat Nottingham Forest FC and subsequently Cardiff City FC to reach the Premier League for the very first team.
Were you to ask a Nottingham Forest fan what they thought of the playoff system, well I think you’d have to make sure you were clear of any impressionable young children. Having qualified for the playoffs four times in the past ten years, and failed to make it to the final on each occasion, Forest fans will give you a rather different view of the playoffs than Blackpool fans will. The even more galling aspect of it as a Forest fan is the seemingly unfair nature of the postseason bonanza. During most of the 2009-10 Championship season Forest were in a battle for the automatic promotion places, falling away in the final couple of months but still finishing comfortably in third position – one place away from automatic promotion. Forest then went on to lose to Blackpool in the semi-final, a team that finished three places and 9 points below them over the course of the 46 game season – where’s the fairness in that?
It seems that the longer playoffs are around in British sport, the more fans forgive the once perceived injustice of a third placed team not winning promotion, or the top placed side at the end of the league season not ending up as overall champion. Much of this is down to the entertainment factor, neutrals will tell you that playoffs often produce spectacular entertainment, fans of those involved will tell you that those games are some of the most nerve-wracking they will ever be involved in. One thing can be assured though, playoffs are very rarely dull.
The long tradition of a postseason in American sports and the peculiarities of their league structure means there are few who question the existence of playoffs as a means to ending a season. Indeed the greatest playoff final of them all, The Super Bowl, has now supposedly become the most watched single sporting fixture in the world. In the other US sports, basketball, ice hockey and baseball, playoffs consist of a series of games to decide which team advances through to the next round. Best of seven game series are used, with the team with the better regular season record playing four of the potentially seven games at home. This means the likelihood of a fluke result is reduced, a team will have to beat their opponents four times before advancing, meaning that US playoffs are less of a cup competition than perhaps they are in Britain. This is only the case in three of the four sports though, where the minimum number of games a team will play in a season is 82 (basketball and ice hockey) and as high as 162 in baseball. In football, where a team will only play 16 regular season matches, the playoffs take on a one-game knockout format seen in both rugby union and league in Britain. This can be put down to the physical nature of the sports more than anything else though.
So playoffs have their pros and cons, unless you abolish them altogether then there will always be some dissenters who question their fairness. Though it seems the longer playoffs have been around in a sport the quieter the voice of these naysayers becomes and the louder the voice asking what we did before playoffs were introduced gets. They my not be everyone’s cup of tea but they definitely entertain, even those Forest fans who’d rather finish in mid-table obscurity than be faced with another inevitable heartbreak will testify to that.
Finally, in answer to this posts title, in case you haven’t guessed it already – no, I most definitely have not got playoff fever, not since about 21:45 this evening (16th May) anyway!