Crowning a Champion: Playoffs or a Table?

Ridley Eastland-Fruit, Sports Writer

Competitive sports are, by nature, competitive. Their success and excitement depends on having a winner–this is hardly up for debate. But how that winner is decided varies between sports and between leagues. All major American leagues have chosen the playoff format, but many respected foreign leagues, particularly European soccer leagues, have elected to decide their champion based on who finishes at the top of the table. Is one definitively better?

Many leagues that currently employ a playoff format began with something closer to the table solution. While this worked for the most part when there were only a few teams in close proximity, regional and league expansion strained this method through ties, travel challenges and unbalanced schedules. Conferences, divisions and postseason games became the solution, developing over time into the systems we see today in the NFL and MLB. The playoff system arose as a way to determine the league champion from the pool of division champions.

For team sports, Whitman’s Northwest Conference has foregone playoffs in favor of simply recognizing the team with the best record of the season. This top team receives a berth into the NCAA Division III national tournament, which does have a playoff format. Teams are therefore rewarded for season-long consistency, but then are called on to be able to perform under pressure at a high level in the NCAA tournament.

Advocates for the table system claim it is fairer because teams that have performed extraordinarily well for an entire season do not risk an unfortunate call or play robbing them of their deserved championship. If the Portland Timbers had not capitalized on a goalkeeper error 26 seconds into the 2015 MLS final, would they still have won? The table format rewards consistency and overall quality in a way that is much harder in playoffs. Even multi-game playoffs like those in the NBA and MLB are subject to the woes of injuries and hot/cold-streaks. The majority of top global soccer leagues have elected to follow the table format, allowing it to be balanced by playoff-style competitions like the UEFA Champions League and the FA Cup. Purists in these countries believe the table is the fairest way to determine a winner.

Playoffs, however, remain popular in the United States and in some global leagues. The Football League Championship, for example, uses playoffs to determine the third team that will be promoted to the English Premier League. Playoff supporters point to increased excitement and interest as a major plus for the playoff format.

In tables, teams are often eliminated from championship contention long before the season ends, leaving a series of games being played mostly for pride. Leicester City’s remarkable championship in the Premier League was mathematically sealed with two games left in the season by a draw between two other teams. Leicester was not even playing that day, meaning their championship moment was captured in a cell phone video rather than on the field. If we imagine instead Leicester being crowned in front of a packed Wembley stadium in the hypothetical “Premier League Final,” we see how playoffs may be a tad more exciting. Moreover, the playoff system generates significantly more money through additional games and their accompanying advertising opportunities.

So which is better? It may depend. Let’s take soccer as a case study: For England, a relatively small country with a long season and enormous passion and revenue from soccer already, a table format allows for a champion to be determined more fairly overall. For MLS, however, the sheer geographic span of the league makes it costly to operate on a single table. The continued development of the league benefits from playoff revenue, and for a sport that is already considered boring by many in the United States, some extra playoff thrill and publicity is certainly a benefit.

There are costs and benefits to each system and, though each has seen success around the world, there is no definitively correct solution. Which system to choose can be a tough decision, with each league factoring in its own unique circumstances to determine whether a table or playoff system is the best fit for determining its champion.

Fortunately, many have opted to utilize both. By offering distinct trophies for winning the table and for winning a playoff competition, leagues allow more benefit to come from competition: teams are rewarded for season-long consistency, and everyone enjoys the thrill of the playoff style.