I know I'm kinda beating a dead horse at this point, but I feel it is my civic duty to inform my fellow sports fans about some clearly identifiable ways that sports are doing things wrong.
And no, this isn't because of the Falcon's monumental collapse in the Super Bowl. I'm over that. It's just a game.
IT'S JUST A GAME!
Maybe if I say it enough times I can stop having nightmares.
In any case, it pains me to say it, but this really wasn't the season I thought that the Falcons should have won the Super Bowl. Yes, after they amassed a 25 point lead in the 3rd quarter I certainly thought they should have, but their season as a whole was up and down. They went 11-5 as opposed to the Patriots' 14-2, and were either brilliant or clumsy. They did, however, do something that many Atlanta teams before them failed to do: they got really hot during the playoffs. And that hot streak stopped just in time for the pretty boy who was in Ted 2 to get yet another Super Bowl ring (douche).
Yes, the Falcons team this year was different than many Atlanta teams of old, and they did have a great opportunity to win the Super Bowl. But should they have? Dallas had a better regular season and lost in the divisional round. On the other side, Kansas City had the #2 seed (and a first-round bye) but also lost in the divisional to #3 seeded Pittsburgh.
If higher-seeded teams consistently lose to lower-seeded teams in a playoff bracket, why does no one stop and wonder "is this really panning out like we want?" Sure, it's always possible that on any given day an objectively worse team can defeat an objectively better team, but shouldn't a system be built to defend against that? I'm not saying that underdogs should never win, but if an underdog gets lucky at just the right time and knocks out the team that rightfully deserves a championship, why do we consider it okay?
Some More Reasons Not To Have A Playoff
Now, I realize that playoffs are, for some sports, the only feasible way to determine a champion, as outlined in my previous article, but for the 4 major professional team sports in America (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL), the pool of contestants is small enough that a playoff is largely unnecessary in most cases. One could make the argument that playoffs exist purely because they generate a lot of revenue for television. For this reason, it would be a tall order to convince a professional sports league that they should do away with the ritual, but a man can dream...
1. Playoffs Favor Cold Weather Teams
This isn't applicable for basketball or hockey, both sports being played exclusively indoors, but for football and baseball it's quite important.
Baseball, which is supposed to be a summer sport, features a regular season that ends in late September and a playoff season that lasts the entirety of October, into early November. During this time of year, the weather can start to get pretty chilly in most American cities, especially those in the North. While probably not unbearably cold for many athletes, baseball is a game that does not involve a lot of running (or movement in general), so players will get cold more easily than in other sports.
When people get cold, their extremities usually have reduced blood flow in order to keep their core warm. This means that most people's hands will start to lose feeling. For a pitcher, this is something of a problem, as being able to grasp and control the ball with the little muscles in the fingers could mean the difference between a ball and a strike. For that reason, teams that rely on excellent pitching such as, I don't know, the 1990s Atlanta Braves, might have marginal playoff success when playing in places like, I don't know, New York City.
In NFL football, the playoffs occur during January, possibly the coldest month on the calendar. There are many famous playoff games that have occurred during heavy snowfall, freezing rain, and other sorts of extreme conditions. The Super Bowl, however, is played at a neutral location either indoors or in a temperate climate where weather shouldn't be much of an issue. One may wonder if this played a role in the Buffalo Bills' 4 straight Super Bowl losses, as their home games during the playoffs were in frigid conditions where they had a considerable advantage that was not present in the Super Bowl.
2. Playoffs Favor Teams That Have Slow Starts
As discussed earlier, having a playoff system that allows some decent portion of teams into the playoffs means that as long as you can find a way into the playoffs, it's anybody's game. This means that you can afford to suffer some losses early in the season, but as long as you get your act together before the playoffs, you've got a shot.
Meanwhile, if a team peaks too early in the season, then they run the risk of not showing up to the playoffs in full form.
Many people may like this aspect, as it gives that feeling of hope if your team doesn't look so hot early in the season. But what if your team has a fantastic start but then experiences a decline towards the end of the season? What if they lose to a wild card team who decided to peak at just the right time in the playoffs? You wouldn't like that, would you?
3. Poorly Timed Injuries Can Ruin Playoff Hopes
Going along with #2, a team can have a spectacular season where they break all sorts of records and are heavy favorites going into the playoffs. But then, tragedy strikes and their star player gets injured right before the playoffs start! This can and has happened on many occasions, which leads to another problem: teams not trying very hard towards the end of the regular season.
Depending on the sport, a good team can sometimes solidify their playoff spot well before the regular season is over. At this juncture, the team no longer has anything to theoretically play for, so in many cases the players will stop playing to win and start playing "not to get hurt." This is bad for the people who paid to see the team play, as they won't be treated to top-quality athleticism, but it's also bad for the players. The problem with coasting the season to a close is that players can start to get in the mindset of "giving it your C game", which can make it difficult to transition to the urgency of the playoffs. This can feed back into #2, where teams who start slow but have to finish strong in order to make the playoffs can enter the postseason with more momentum than a team that has a strong season but coasts to the finish line.
4. It Trivializes The Regular Season
While I'm talking mostly about professional sports in this article, my favorite team sport is college football, which used to be notorious for its lack of a multi-round playoff, and still gets criticism with just a two-round playoff. I remember one time years ago hearing a disgruntled man complain that "college football is the best sport out there, and it's a travesty that it doesn't have a playoff!"
At that moment, I had a realization: what if the thing that people hated the most about college football was also the thing that made it great? In college football, every game matters. A team doesn't necessarily have to go undefeated in the regular season to win the BCS championship (the past three BCS champions haven't), but only one time in the modern era has an FBS (formerly Division I-A) team won a national championship with two losses (LSU, 2008).
For this reason, almost every college football game is exciting to watch. This doesn't really make sense when it's compared to the NFL. In the NFL, the overall level of talent is higher, and there is a more even distribution of talent between teams, making every game fairly close. And yet, I often get bored watching a regular season NFL game if it is between two teams that I don't care about, whereas I will watch nearly any college football game with some level of excitement. The BCS ranking system also helps with this, as you may care about the result of a game on the other side of the country between two teams that aren't even in your conference, just because one of them is ranked higher than your team.
5. It Favors "Brute Force" Athletes Over "Precision" Athletes
In my Brute Force vs. Precision article, I make a claim that athletes can be lumped into two categories. A "brute force" athlete would be one who relies on their athleticism (strength, speed, etc.), whereas a "precision" athlete would rely on their skills at the sport in order to be successful. Obviously, athletes will have to be good at both in order to succeed, but many individuals (and teams) will tend to favor one over the other.
I go into this in more detail in the aforementioned article, but in short it can be argued that "brute force" athletes (and teams) will have an advantage in games where the stakes are high. My reasoning for this is basically that the "brute force" qualities (running fast or jumping high or shoving opponents out of the way) become better as psychological stress is increased. Conversely, the finer motor skills relied upon by "precision" athletes tend to be degraded as psychological stress is increased. Have you ever felt like you were able to run faster if someone was chasing you? Have you ever felt like your penmanship was degraded if you were trying to write something while really excited? The sympathetic nervous system is a double-edged sword.
In a single-elimination playoff, the stakes are always high, as a loss will send the team home. This means that all players will be under a certain amount of psychological stress, which will help some players while hurting others. Of course, there are many "precision" athletes who have been able to have great showings of skill on the biggest stages, but doing so required more effort on their part to control their emotions and exert "grace under pressure."
From a capitalism standpoint, this is actually a way that sports broadcasting could be hurting their numbers with the insistence on playoffs. One could make the case that audiences are more dazzled by great showings of "precision" rather than "brute force", and playoffs seem to favor "brute force."
6. Playoffs Favor Teams Who Have Already Won
In going with #5, a "precision"-style team can still achieve success if the players feel less psychological stress. One of the best ways to feel less stress about a big game is to look back and realize that you've already won a bunch of them. This is fairly apparent many times in sports when a player/team who is not "supposed" to win a game amasses a big lead. I've seen it happen in many a tennis match featuring my favorite player, Roger Federer. Sometimes he may get down to a guy who is much lower ranked, and things will look fairly bleak for him, but then it seems like he flips a switch and goes "oh yeah, I'm Roger Federer, I don't lose to guys like this" and then he comes back and wins.
Winning is a positive feedback loop: the more you win, the more confidence you gain, and the more likely you are to win in the future. Losing is also a positive feedback loop, but in the other direction: the more you lose, the more you become accustomed to losing, and the more likely you are to break down when the stakes get high. Since playoffs create situations in which there are high stakes, a team that can look back on all their past achievements will be at an advantage over a team that has never won anything big.
Hopefully you can now see why I think playoff systems are overrated. Yes, they do make things exciting and give many teams an opportunity to win that wouldn't exist otherwise, but they have some inherent flaws that I don't think many people address properly.
How could we make things better? While I don't think playoffs will be going away anytime soon, I think that in most cases sports should seek to reduce the number of playoff rounds, not increase them. Keep the pool of teams in the playoffs to just the ones that really deserve to be there, not the ones that had so-so regular seasons.
I've known many people who don't really care about sports until the playoffs roll around, and I think that's a shame. The reason so many people have this mindset is because they realize that the regular season doesn't really matter. I think that the regular season should matter, as it is where the majority of games are played. Maybe if we stopped trivializing it with excessive playoff rounds, then people would get more excited about the regular season again.