What Matters More: Regular Season or Playoffs?

As a Sharks fan throughout most of my childhood, I was terribly disappointed when the Sharks won the President’s Trophy in the 2008-9 season and were prematurely ousted from the Stanley Cup Playoffs. How can a team that cruises by all of its opponents in the regular season suddenly collapse in the playoffs, and “waste” the entire season? The amazing run of the 16-0 Patriots was similarly disregarded after they fell to the New York Giants in the Super Bowl, as was the 116-46 record of the 2001 Mariners, and many other teams before them. This year, I had the good fortune of watching the Golden State Warriors finish off the greatest regular season in history. Who could’ve imagined this team would lose 9 games the entire 82 game long season? But again, playoff hysteria gripped the nation and now NBA fans and critics around the country are discrediting the marvelous feat this team accomplished. “73 wins means nothing without a ring” I hear, or “Greatness is defined in June”. To me, that’s nonsense.

If we look to professional soccer leagues in Europe, the EPL or La Liga as the leading examples, there are different types of greatness: international cups (Europa, Champions Leauge), Domestic Cups (FA Cup, Copa del Rey), and winning the league itself. Each of these three types of competitions offer teams a different challenge. On a given day any team could win a single elimination game, while the double round-robin system requires tactical mastery. Upsets are expected in these tournaments and are a major reason these competitions draw so much excitement. Over a long season however, the cream rises to the top, and so a different sort of champion is born. Regardless of the system used to crown a winner, each is valued about as much as the next. That is to say, winning the league is a huge deal.

The point of a long season is to diminish the impact of random win streaks on the ultimate league rank. Playoffs, on the other hand, reward teams that find their groove in a one-month span, thus luck plays a much larger role in determining playoff champions (best of seven series are better in that regard than the NFL, or even the MLB opening rounds). Sure, these victories should be celebrated, but they shouldn’t be legacy defining moments.

Think of Leceister in the EPL this past year and their media reception around December, when they were top of the table. Everyone believed them to be having a stretch of unsustainably good form, to have had easy match-ups with weakened sides, and to fall to mid-table within a two months. Yet they held strong, remained atop the league, and rode the long season down to its glorious end. Leceister are champions because they fought through 38 arduous games, and led the league when the final whistle blew. They are champions because they weathered storms, they fought back from losing streaks, and they remained consistently better than their opponents in the long run. Barcelona, who are certainly not underdogs in La Liga, also came out of the long season victorious. Though they were unable to repeat the Treble (league, domestic cup, and international cup champions), their fans were nonetheless elated when they won the league. So why is it that the Warriors, who tore apart the NBA in the regular season, are dismissed and chided for their playoff performance?

It must have something to do with American sports culture, and American sports. The simplest way to see that is to compare the MLS to the EPL or La Liga or Ligue 1. In the EPL for instance, there is one table that ranks all teams and there are a couple different tournaments that span nearly the entire season. The MLS instead opts for an Eastern and a Western conference, similar season long tournaments, and finally a post-season playoff within each division that culminates in an East vs West final. Though both the MLS and the EPL have domestic competitions as well as a league winner, neither of these two pieces of silverware matter much to MLS fans. In the US, only the MLS Cup victor gets their parade (whereas Arsenal paraded their winning of the FA Cup in 2015, for example).

Though I can only speculate as to the reasons Americans value playoffs so much, I imagine it has something to do with the branding and the set-up of the league. With regards to branding I am specifically talking about linguistics; naming the winner of a tournament “Champions” makes the tournament more significant, especially when the winner of the regular season is usually deemed “Winners of XYZ Cup” or not even recognized. In addition, the fact that playoffs come at the end of the season gives fans a sense of closure; when a team wins the very last game of the playoffs, it feels like they’ve won everything, like they are indeed the one and only champions. Finally, it could have something to do with the length of the season – though this predominantly applies to the MLB, NBA, and NHL. When a season consists of more than 80 games, most fans don’t watch every game. Thus, it is more difficult to sell advertisements especially when the match-up is a “Garbage Bowl”. However, playoffs provide an ideal revenue-making opportunity for the league: a best of 7 series where every game matters, so that fans have no choice but to stay glued to their television. By the time the Conference Finals and the Finals arrive, fans and non-fans alike tend to tune-in to see who the champion will be. Evidently, this is an excellent way to reap profits and since the league managers understand this, they hype up the playoffs any chance they get.

Although playoff culture is deeply ingrained in American sports, it is too prone to hot/cold streaks to be the lone determinant of greatness. Playoffs are a fun and exciting time to be a sports fan as they provide a shorter, more intense version of the prior months-long season. The winners of these tournaments certainly earn their right to celebrate. But Hall of Fame players (like Allen Iverson, Charles Barkley, Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Ovechkin, Kevin Durant, etc) should not be looked down upon for failing to win the playoffs. Consistent greatness, in the form of an incredible regular season run or a player’s career-long achievements, should be celebrated and valued equally in their own right. If playoffs really are the only relevant factor in determining greatness and legacies, why bother playing a regular season?