It’s time to talk about the “P” word. That’s right: Playoffs, the common format in North American sports, where teams play a whole regular season for most of the year that seemingly becomes irrelevant when the top teams — or, in the case of Major League Soccer, the NHL and the NBA, more than half the teams — advance to a whole other knockout tournament that determines the seasonal champion.
It’s also a format that’s been anathema to the vast majority of European leagues who, for the most part, have been more than happy to crown their champions the way they’ve crowned them for the past century or so.
However, that could be changing. It won’t happen next year, or even the year after, but it’s an increasing part of the conversation as the European game deals with a shifting economic landscape and the increasing effects of polarization with the rich (whether we’re talking clubs or leagues) dramatically increasing the gap to everybody else, season after season. We’ve already seen UEFA radically change the Champions League format to the “Swiss Model” from 2024; Belgium introduced a post-season playoff format in 2009 and has tinkered with it since. Both Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A have been exploring the possibility of some kind of post-season playoff format — whether knockout or round-robin based — for a while now.
This talk won’t go away, so here’s a Q+A to better understand why it’s happening and how things could look like in the future.
Q: Wait, why are they doing this? What happened to “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it?”
A: Plenty of folk think that it is breaking, if not broken, and they range from those involved in big clubs right down to mid-size and smaller clubs.
There are two main factors at play here. One is the economics of the system, where clubs find it difficult to be sustainable. The other is the sporting side, with resources so unevenly split that certain clubs dominate year after year. The two are linked: clubs feel they are forced to make a choice between sustainability and the ability to compete. And that, incidentally, applies to the big clubs as well, or at least it’s the justification given by some clubs, like Real Madrid and Juventus, for the Super League project.
Q: How does that work?
A: Like any business, if you want to be sustainable, you either cut costs or grow revenue or both. Many clubs have been propped up by owners investing in teams to try to grow their brand and commercial revenue as well as chase on-field success, which leads to more prize money. But it’s difficult to do since you can’t control what happens on the pitch, you’re all chasing the same pie and you can only fund losses for so long. And if you cut costs, you risk becoming less competitive.
– ESPN+ viewers guide: LaLiga, Bundesliga, MLS, FA Cup, more
– Stream ESPN FC Daily on ESPN+ (U.S. only)
– Don’t have ESPN? Get instant access
UEFA and national leagues have tried to address this via mechanisms like Financial Fair Play and while it has broadly made football’s ecosystem more stable, it has also made it less competitive. You only need to look at league tables from 20 or 30 years ago — as well as the number of points earned by champions — to see this, and that bleeds into the sporting case for playoffs …
Q: Which is?
A: Every season, in May, you see a huge amount of frankly irrelevant games. Between teams that are already champions, teams that have clinched a European spot, teams that are already relegated and teams that know they aren’t going down and aren’t going into Europe, we get a whole load of empty encounters.
Matchday 37 was played between Sunday and Tuesday in the Premier League, and 12 of the 18 teams involved had nothing at stake. It was a similar story for more than half the teams in the Bundesliga and La Liga. And bear in mind, those are leagues with six or seven European places at stake, so there’s much more to play for. That’s not the case for most leagues in Europe.
Q: OK, but the attendances were still good, right?
A: Yes, for the most part, but I’m not sure you can simply use match-going fans — most of whom are season ticket holders anyway, or folks who bought their tickets far in advance — as the only metric here. For a start, they’re older — in 2016, the Premier League revealed the average match-going fan was in his forties — which doesn’t bode well for the future. But also, since everybody talks in terms of global audience, how engaged is someone, especially a younger fan, going to be for a game with nothing at stake?
Going to games is an entirely different experience — with rituals like hanging out with your friends, singing songs, eating or drinking, sitting outside in the sun (hopefully) — than watching at home, no matter how virtually you are connected to whatever communities you watch games with.
Unless you have some local family connection to a place or get to experience games in person, it’s highly unlikely you’re going to become a fan of a club that hardly competes for anything other than mid-table comfort.
Q: Well, you could go on a cup run …
A: Sure, but that’s a tough sell, not to mention that domestic cups have been largely devalued in most countries, mainly because they’re sandwiched in the league schedule: cup runs are interference. But you’re on to something. Playoffs of some kind might well rekindle that late in the campaign and in leagues with runaway winners, reintroduce a sense of competition and jeopardy after the regular season.
Q: Won’t it devalue the regular season like in American sports? The Utah Jazz had the best record in the NBA regular season last year, but nobody remembers that: they just remember that Milwaukee were NBA champions …
A: Sure. But you don’t need to use the playoffs to necessarily determine the champions, or those all-important European places. Whoever wins the league can be crowned champion and get all the accolades. Call whoever wins the post-season something else.
There’s still value in it. Whoever wins it will still have beaten, in rapid succession, the other top teams in the league. And because these late season games will be meaningful, you will generate more revenue.
Q: I don’t know … it seems unfair that you get to win a trophy when you’re not the best team in the country based on the regular season. Would fans accept that?
A: They already do, don’t they? We accept it in the Champions League, don’t we? If Real Madrid win the Champions League, they will do so having taken fewer points (30) than Liverpool (who are already at 31). So what?
Or take the Championship in England, which (in relative economic terms) is the biggest prize in football. We regularly get teams finishing fifth or sixth, 10 points or more out of the promotion places, and getting promoted via the playoffs. Nobody seems to have a problem with that.
Q: OK, but that means extending the season, and aren’t there already too many games?
A: Well, for a start, I’d cut the number of top-flight teams in each big league to 18 or even 16. Then you’d automatically have more meaningful games. And you’d cut down on player workload, without extending the season. But, of course, that’s unlikely to happen, since it’s about money and more inventory equals more revenue.
It wouldn’t have to be a big production either. Give the top two teams a bye to the semifinal, have third to sixth place finishers play quarterfinals. Play single-leg at the home of the highest placed team and you wrap everything up in 10 days. Or you make it top eight, give byes to the quarterfinal to the third and fourth place teams, and do it in 12 days.
Not every format is going to be right for every league, and not every league might want to do this, but you’re giving teams something to play for. And you’re creating a lucrative property: another batch of high-end games on successive nights at the end of a campaign.
As for the player workload, we’re talking two or three additional games maximum. (Scrap the League Cup in England and it will even out…)
Q: What if you’re playing a European final? Won’t that mess with your preparation?
A: No system is perfect. There will be outliers and weird situations. But heck, we just saw Liverpool play a decisive away fixture with the Premier League title on the one and make nine changes from the weekend. These are extreme cases and extremely rare.
Q: What about tradition? Isn’t that important?
A: It is, but there’s a difference between tradition and natural conservatism. To many, the FA Cup was more important than the league in England for many years. Now it’s not. The Bundesliga has had a single league, round-robin format for more than 50 years, the French League since World War II. And, of course, the European Cup became the Champions League and changed formats. The game adapts over time.
I think the reason people are talking about this — and why I welcome the discussion — is that this isn’t being driven purely by economic factors (though, obviously, they’re important), but by sporting factors too. We can talk about levelling the playing field via salary caps, or dividing revenues more equitably and whatever until we’re blue in the face, but it’s hugely difficult to do and there are myriad obstacles. A playoff solution would help address some of those issues in some of those countries and is far easier to implement.