Have You Got Playoff Fever?

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.

Many of sports greatest trophies are won via playoffs. Photos: Steph Anderson, Briles Takes Pictures, ConspiracyofHappiness, mark.watmough.

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!

Photo credits: Vince Lombardi Trophy – Steph Anderson, Larry O’Brien Trophy – Briles Takes Pictures…’s, World Series Trophy – ConspiracyofHappiness, Stanley Cup – mark.watmough

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Brains vs. Brawn

You know the person, the battering ram in the school rugby team, the beanpole on the basketball court, the lightning quick winger in football, the kid whose physical attributes covered up for a lack of talent? Most of these people get found out when adolescence comes to an end and everyone else has caught up with them and they can no longer barge through, tower over or race past the little kid. Some of them slip through the net though, some of them maintain their physical edge and have just enough talent to remain successful, maybe even turn professional.

I myself was the beanpole on the basketball court. A growth spurt between middle school and secondary school resulted in a distinct height advantage when it came to trials for the year 8 basketball team. After the first year though I became less and less effective but I trained hard and worked on my passing and shooting enough to hold down a place for the four years until 6th form, relying on the more talented ball handlers around me to get by.

Blake Griffin

6' 10" Griffin is quite a physical specimen. Photo: Keith Allison.

The idea for this blog came from listening to an NBA pundit commenting on Blake Griffin, the 6 ft 10 in record-breaking rookie, that he couldn’t wait for Griffin to become a basketball player as well as an athlete. The first rookie to be named in the All Star team since Tim Duncan in 1998, winning all six Rookie of The Month awards available in the Western Conference and the first rookie since 2000 to average 20 points and 10 rebounds a game, Griffin has had a stellar opening season in the NBA with a struggling LA Clippers side.

Is he actually a good basketball player though? Well he can definitely dunk, winning the Slam Dunk Contest during the All Star Weekend showed that, but is that all he can do? Like many power forwards he has a poor shooting percentage from the free throw line, his mid range jump shot needs work and if the Clippers want to build a successful team around him he must show more variety in the paint, doing more than just bullying opponents with his size. He shares the ball well though, averaging 3.8 assists per game, and showed signs of maturing as the season went on.

With all his success so far though, does he really need to improve? He already has enough physical presence to be an All Star for years to come, better judges than me though have deemed that he could be so much more. Were he to develop and mature as he seems capable of, he could become one of the all time greats and still be effective when his body starts to fail him in his later years.

Griffin has made it to the NBA and been very successful using his physical advantage but has the capability to prolong his career with genuine talent, others aren’t quite so lucky. Theo Walcott is still striving to convince many that he is anything more than a sprinter who can kick a ball, the same can be said for Aaron Lennon. OK I’ll admit that this is a rather black and white view of their footballing prowess but there is little doubt that were they not blessed with such electric pace they wouldn’t be where they are today.

Darren Fletcher warms up.

Darren Fletcher may not be the most skilful of footballers but that hasn't stopped him. Photo: Andrea Sartorati

Cardiovascular endurance can also elevate one’s performance levels above those around them, not because they are more skilled but because they simply can go for longer. Would Darren Fletcher and Park Ji-Sung be continually trusted by Sir Alex Ferguson to play in Manchester United’s most important games if they could not run for days on end? They certainly aren’t the most naturally skilful players at Sir Alex’s disposal yet they can be relied upon to close people down and track back to make a saving tackle when perhaps some so-called ‘flair players’ couldn’t be.

The list of sport stars ‘making the most of what god gave them’ is endless; would the Williams sisters be so good at tennis if they couldn’t hit the ball harder than anyone else? Would Rafael Nadal be the world no. 1 if he couldn’t chase every ball down and seemingly not tire? Would Michael Phelps be the all-conquering swimmer he is without his disproportionately large wingspan and size 14 feet? Would Usain Bolt be so fast if he wasn’t 6′ 5″?

Lionel Messi playing for Barcelona.

Messi is successful despite his diminutive stature. Photo: Prettyfriendship.

More importantly though, are all these questions rather pointless? Is it the same as asking, what if Lionel Messi wasn’t so skilful? Or what if Phil Taylor didn’t practice darts so much? Isn’t sporting competition all about celebrating the variations in people’s abilities? Team sports would be incredibly tedious if everyone shared the same qualities. And where would athletics be without the subtle, and sometimes not so subtle, differences between us all?

It may seem unfair that the big kid always gets picked ahead of you at school and that skilled individuals may be overlooked for those with more obvious physical advantages. But those people will get found out eventually, or they’ll have had to work incredibly hard to forge a path for themselves where less determined people may have failed. The great thing about sport is that there is a place for almost anyone, hard work can get you a long way and this is something that should be celebrated and encouraged. After all, we can’t all be Roger Federer!

Photo credits:

Blake Griffin: Keith Allison;  Darren Fletcher: Andrea Sartorati;  Lionel Messi: Prettyfriendship