Why Do We Have Playoffs Again?

We’re in the thick of NBA and NHL playoff season and once again, it seems like a tale of two different playoffs. While the NHL playoffs is once drawing in casual fans who otherwise tune out during the regular season, the NBA playoffs feel like an unnecessarily drawn-out affair.

This isn’t the case every single season. The tables have the chance to turn with each passing season. However, what lingers in the aftermath of every single sports remains the same personal question: why do we have playoffs again?

I by no means is against the practice of tacking on a tournament at the end of the regular season in order to crown a champion. Each March, we bear witness to March Madness and the storylines it creates. In cases such as that, a playoff tournament is necessary in order to determine a champion from a field who most likely never faced each other during the regular season. Calculating whether or not the Big 12 champion deserves to be champion over the Big Ten champion, with little to no crossover between the conferences during the regular season, can only hold so much merit. 

In cases like the NBA however, which has an extensive regular season that sees everyone play one another home-and-away, the tacked on tournament feels…well, tacky. In all fairness to the other NBA teams, the only sides who deserved to have a shot at the championship this season were Boston, Cleveland, Golden State and San Antonio. These teams can even be seen coasting to some degree until they reach their inevitable conference championship berth. The belief that Chicago and Portland, who each finished the season with a .500 record, should be granted a chance at the championship is absurd. 

When over half the teams who make the playoffs are automatically written off for being far inferior to the remaining half, taking into account the occurrence of one or two potential early-round upsets, it does not bode well for the format’s longevity. 

The playoff format is by and large an American made product. For most of the established leagues across the world, whose existence predates the past few decades, the regular season is the only season. There are no playoffs and quite frankly, they’re happy with that. 

The argument for the existence of playoffs is, toward the end of the season, it gives something for the teams in the middle of the road to play for. It also gives fans of teams in the middle of the road something to pay for. After all, when the regular season championship race has been narrowed down to four teams by the middle of the season, what’s so exciting about rooting for a team who’ll only finished seventh. That’s sadly the mindset of many fickle American sports fans and the business side of sports has latched onto it. 

Last season, Major League Soccer let in twelve teams to its playoffs. It left out ten. When you’ve gotten to the point where you’re awarding teams who finished in the bottom half of the overall standings with a playoff berth, justification can only be spelt as ju$tification. 

To say that greed doesn’t play a major factor in the existence of an expanded playoff field isn’t wrong. There’s a reason why the college football bowl season has expanded over the past decade to the point that it’s now a common occurrence for teams with a 5-7 record to earn a bid to a vain bowl game. That greed though can only be fueled by the fans who buy into it.

Ultimately, the casual American sports fans’s aspiration for their team to receive admiration is why playoffs exist today. Fans of teams such as Southampton or West Ham United will be more than thrilled at the prospect of finishing near the middle of the Premier League table this season. Sure, they would’ve loved to have finished higher and earn a Europa bid. What fan doesn’t want their team to be the best? But, when their fate was sealed as the season progress, they still showed up to the games. They still showed their support for their clubs. They didn’t pack it in because there is no “playoffs or bust” mentality that has soured American sports fandom. 

Just this past September, the Autzen Stadium sellout streak came to an end after seventeen years. Why? Because they were playing a meaningless opponent (that’s for another story) and were coming off a loss in the Alamo Bowl; a result that should not matter when determining how much you support the team.

Would a few hundred or more fans have shown up if the Ducks finished the season ranked No. 15 following a win over Oregon State? I’d have to think so. Why do we need playoffs again?