Hayes: No playoffs, no problem for European club leagues


Bob Hayes, Columnist

While soccer has gained popularity among American sports fans, European club leagues — the most popular and perhaps most competitive sports leagues in the entire world — are often maligned by Americans because of their lack of a playoff system. A no-playoff league seems highly unorthodox for Americans. Even college football has developed a playoff system, which now means that whatever American sport you are watching, its champion is almost certainly determined by a playoff.

Although it may sound crazy, the European soccer structure may in fact be better than the American system.

Why do we like playoffs? The general argument surrounding the implementation of playoffs within college football is that teams should settle the championship on the field. It seems unfair for the champion to be crowned without playing a team who we know is fit for a championship. Playoffs would ensure that all the top teams have a shot at the title and would have to repeatedly prove it against top-level competition. That argument makes sense in abolishing college football’s Bowl Championship Series but not when it comes to European soccer.

Let’s use the English Premier League as our example of a playoff-less European soccer league. Far and away the most popular sports league in the world, the 20 EPL teams play a slate of 38 matches each season — a home match and an away match against each of the other 19 teams. Three points are awarded for a win, one for a draw and zero for a loss.  At the end of the 38 matches, the team with the most points receives the championship. That’s it. Sounds unfair, right? Boring even?

First, let’s explore this structure on the grounds of fairness. It seems wrong to award the winner of the so-called “regular season” the championship. In college football, that would be asinine. Each team only plays 12 or 13 games against not even a tenth of the total number of teams. However, in the EPL, each team plays every other team, home and away. It is a sufficient and perfectly fair sample size from which to determine a champion — much more so than a playoff, full of one-game sample sizes, would. Which makes more sense: determining the Major League Baseball champion from a 162 game sample size or from three isolated series, each much shorter?

Furthermore, the EPL never falls short on excitement. In recent years, the EPL has become a battle among a half-dozen or so clubs who all believe they have a shot at the title. Just two years ago, the season ended with the two top clubs, Manchester City and Manchester United, accruing the exact same number of points, with City miraculously winning in the final seconds on goal differential. Week in and week out, every point from every match matters in the title race.

Additionally, all the top teams are guaranteed to play twice every season, which leads to a massive match just about weekly. In just the past week and a half, I have seen my favorite club, Arsenal, play an electric Liverpool club twice as well as a talented Manchester United in three massive matches. Wednesday, Arsenal takes on Bayern Munich, by all accounts the best team in the world, and I find myself as excited as I could be for any American playoff game.

In American sports, only a few teams make the playoffs, and a fan’s passion peaks right as his or her team is eliminated. In Europe, playoff-like atmospheres arise nearly every week, and that buzz can be carried throughout the entire year since no team is never eliminated.

Even if a club is out of the title picture, there are multiple secondary goals for clubs and fans. Clubs are always gunning for the elusive top-four finish, which means they qualify for the next year’s UEFA Champions League. The exciting relegation and promotion system, in which the bottom three EPL teams each year are relegated to a lower division, means that the teams at the bottom have just as much to fight for as anyone else. Also, England features two single-elimination domestic cups each year that lead to some exciting Cinderella stories.

Still have a problem? Well, each year the top 32 European teams face off in the UEFA Champions League. These matches take place throughout the year, and the clubs also compete in their respective domestic leagues and cup competitions. It is a true playoff between the top teams that exists in addition to the exciting EPL slate. The Champions League ultimately settles all scores between passionate fans arguing which club or which league is the best in the world and leads to an annual final with viewership numbers that trump even the seemingly insurmountable Super Bowl.

Finally, on the last match-day of the EPL season, all 20 teams kick off at the exact same time, and complete madness ensues. Imagine March Madness with all games being played at the same time, except the competition is between seasoned professionals on the world’s biggest stage. In the culmination of a season of excitement and fairness, the bruisers at the bottom are just as exciting as the cash cows at the top. Is that not more American than a playoff?

Bob Hayes is a Weinberg freshman. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].