More Meaningful Playoffs

Michael Terry of Grantland did a great job of summing up why a college football playoff changes things:

Where once we placed a general emphasis on consistency of excellence, new playoff systems have instead sought to improve everyone’s chances to win by placing an increasing emphasis on excellence under manufactured pressure. At one time, the idea was to ensure the two best teams met to determine the champion. Now we create paths for more and more teams to show they can perform best “when it matters.” Playoffs are said to be fairer. They’re not. What they are, it turns out, is more fun — a guarantee of an annual blip of excitement. Fans’ preference for more playoff games has made it easier for major sports to continue playoff expansion to increase revenues while rightly claiming to be in step with the wishes of their followers.

These thoughts echo what has been spoken about both on this blog and the former podcast associated with it. A college football playoff is certainly more exciting, but it is not better at determining who the best team (and therefore most deserving champion) is. This is true in all sports, where the slate is essentially wiped clean when the playoffs start. Sure there could be some benefits from seeding, or from home field, but those advantages are marginal. It is almost as if this is a second season, just shortened and played in a different format (at least in baseball, basketball and hockey it is).

The argument against this logic would be that Florida St. is 13–0, and would have certainly been #1 or #2 in the old BCS. And many people do not even think they will beat Oregon in the semifinals. So the argument is that the new system therefore “works”. But an Ohio St. team that lost early at home to a bad Virginia Tech team has benefited greatly form playing better later. Of course Ohio St. is trotting out their 3rd string QB in a national semifinal for his second career start, so they might get blown out too.

What if leagues started experimenting with more radical changes. The baseball minor leagues and the NBA Development League have both tried new rules in recent years. What if the regular season mattered more in the playoffs? What if teams that finished higher seeded got some other sort of advantage besides just a possibility of more home games? Maybe the better team gets spotted a certain number of points/runs/goals based on how much better they finished than their playoff opponent. Maybe there is some other tweak, like in baseball a team only gets 2 outs per inning for so many innings at the start of the series.

The bottom line is that teams that play well in the regular season should be more rewarded for it. Otherwise, what is the point? And what does it prove when more than half the NBA teams make the playoffs? At that stage the slate is wiped clean, but should it be? No one remembers who the “regular season” champion is, because such a thing doesn’t exist. Instead of the champion is crowned out of a pool of select teams who all basically have the same shot once the playoffs start. Seems like a system ripe for a tweak.