As and American, I know how much fun playoffs can be. The NCAA basketball tournament, Game 7′s in the Stanley Cup playoffs and even the over-hyped Superbowl are all thrilling sporting events.
I’m also an NBA fan, so I know how a playoff system can render the regular season meaningless. But this is why the English Premier League Champions League playoff idea is so brilliant — it implements a playoff system and it makes the regular season more compelling.
Currently there are four competitions embedded in the English Premier League (and most other leagues). In order of importance:
1. The title (first place)
2. Survival (16th place)
3. Champions League qualification (fourth place)
4. Europa League qualification (sixth or seventh place).
But what if the C.L. playoff proposal — a playoff between the fourth through seventh place clubs — becomes reality? Obviously, the race for seventh becomes exponentially more important. For example, Birmingham travels to Aston Villa on April 25 in a match that will almost certainly be meaningless. But what if a C.L. playoff spot was in play? Suddenly the match is one the most important in Birmingham history and can’t-miss television. When done right, playoffs make the regular season better.
There’s also financial benefits. Ticket sales and television revenue will increase not just for the playoff matches, but also in the final regular season matches leading up to the playoffs. Plus, if a club like Everton or Aston Villa wins the C.L. playoff, the financial reward could help them make a title challenge (OK, probably not) and maybe they could make a C.L. run. (Note: Hey English football reporters, please stop talking about the Big Four because by any measurement Manchester City has become the fifth “Big” club. Thanks.)
The playoffs itself shouldn’t be overlooked. Can you imagine the intrigue of a Arsenal-Tottenham or Liverpool-Everton playoff match? The C.L. playoff final will rival (dare I say surpass) the importance of the FA Cup final. Lastly, like in all playoffs, there is bound to be upsets, comebacks and memorable individual performances.
(Tangent: Not only should there be a Champions League playoff, there should also be a relegation playoff. The 15th through 18th place clubs should meet with the losers in first round playing in the final and the loser in the final headed to the Championship. A C.L. and relegation playoff would make five competitions: title, automatic C.L. qualification (third), final C.L. playoff spot (seventh), avoiding relegation playoffs (13th place) and avoiding automatic relegation (18th place). Throw in two sets of playoffs and you have the most interesting league in the world.)
If there was ever going to be a universally embraced plan by the English press, clubs and fans this would be it. This assumes the English press, clubs and fans are all logical thinkers and would know a good thing if it hit them right in the face.
Here are the complaints (in order of stupidity):
1. If the EPL goes to a playoff system, it’s possible the 7th place team will qualify for the C.L. and they’ll struggle against the top clubs in Europe. Therefore, the EPL might put its fourth C.L. spot in danger.
To review, the number of C.L. and Europa League spots is determined by how well the clubs from a given country do in Europe over the last five years. The top three leagues in the Europe get four C.L. and three E.L. spots. England is currently the top country followed by Spain and Italy, with Germany currently fourth.
England’s coefficient (or total points for the last five years) is 79.499; Spain’s is 74.266; Italy’s is 62.910; Germany’s is 56.695. How these numbers are calculated is complex (you can read about it hear), but by doing some math I’m almost positive if England’s No. 4 club lost its C.L. qualifying match every year England’s coefficient would still be higher than Germany’s. So, let’s say the seventh team regularly won the playoff and let’s say the playoff winner ALWAYS got knocked out before making the Group Stage. Even in that worse case scenario, England would STILL rank as one of the top three leagues in Europe.
2. This is just a way for the FA to revisit the 39th game proposal to play matches overseas.
First, there is no evidence the FA is thinking about doing this. Second, there is no way they would do this.
(In an unbelievable poor piece of journalism, Soccernet’s Harry Harris reported these are the two sticking points with a “majority” of the clubs. Of course, he doesn’t name any of his sources in the story. You can read it here.)
3. This will crowd up the fixture list and be logistically difficult if not impossible.
Assuming this isn’t going to be a two-legged playoff (and I doubt it would be), we’re talking about two teams playing one extra match and two teams playing two extra matches. It might take a little bit of creativity but it’s far from impossible.
4. Qualifying for the Champions League is an honor that should be earned and a mediocre mid-table team has no business in the tournament. Yeah, you’re American and you like playoffs — good for you. We’re English and we like the way we run our league. Enjoy your baseball “World Series” and fuck off.
It’s important to remember the top three teams in the league, the most elite teams in the nation, will still automatically qualify; the regular season will continue to be critically important. Also, the difference between fourth and seventh place isn’t too significant. Taking this year as an example, is there a huge disparity between Liverpool and Aston Villa? Most importantly, the playoff has a chance give financial relief to some clubs, instead of the same teams cashing in on the C.L. year after year.
In fairness, it seems most of English football society is moderately in favor of the idea. The only real reason to be against it is if you’re one of the Big Five and now finishing fourth doesn’t assure you of C.L. football. But those clubs should realize there are five big clubs now and one of them is going to be left out anyway. If there is going to be an odd man out every year, wouldn’t you want to have chance via a playoff?
I’m confident we’re going to have a C.L. playoff in the not too distant future. There’s simply too much money too be made from it. I can understand EPL traditionalist being hesitant to any kind of change but, trust me, playoffs are fun.