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Short and sweet

On the North American obsession with the playoffs

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There is a tradition in the NHL unlike any other league. When a team wins the Presidents’ Trophy, an award given to the team that accrues the most points over the course of the regular season, nobody on the team touches the trophy – it’s considered bad luck. The ceremony usually involves an awkward photoshoot in which everyone stands around the big trophy in front of them, without anyone so much as laying a finger on it If they do touch it, much of the media wonders if this team will fall victim to the “Presidents’ Trophy curse” – that the team that was the best during the regular season won’t eventually go on to win the Stanley Cup.

There’s probably no ceremony more indicative of the weird way that North Americans value sports, in which the playoffs’ value outweighs the previous four or five months of the regular season. To touch the Presidents’ Trophy is to value the wrong type of success; everything achieved during a regular season means nothing without victory in the playoffs. It is an obsession foisted on players and teams as a whole: to win in the playoffs is the most important thing – the only thing.

The genealogy makes sense, if you go back far enough. Back in the early 1900s, there were two separate professional baseball leagues of the same prestige – the National League and the American League – and it made sense for the champions of each league to play each other. The teams didn’t play each other at all during the regular season, and only the best team from each league played in the (presumptuously named) World Series, a system that persisted until 1969. Same thing with the NFL’s Super Bowl, which took the champion of the National Football League and the American Football League and pit them in an inter-league championship game. Before that, the leagues determined their own champion by vote or by tie-breaking playoff games. But when both these leagues merged, and the playoffs slowly expanded into what they are now: a collection of the 12 to 16 best teams in a league thrown together. As such, the results may vary. Why the expansion? More playoff teams creates more teams in playoff position throughout the season. This creates sustained interest across the country, as well as more constructively important playoff games, which means more money.

In the rest of the world, playoffs aren’t nearly as much of a thing as they are in the U.S. and Canada. Domestic soccer leagues everywhere else in the world simply anoint the champion of the league after each team has played each other twice. The winner is the team that won the most games over the course of the season. The best team is the most consistent over the entire season – no one game is ever more important than the other. Consistency is a virtue. Over here, the regular season is merely the means of reaching the playoffs, where everything suddenly becomes important. A Players careers is evaluated based on how they perform in a tiny percentage of it – whether they’re able to win ‘the big one.’ When someone doesn’t produce in the playoffs, they’re apt to be labeled a ‘choker’ or ‘soft,’ even if it was simply a stretch of bad luck, or, really, not entirely their fault. Professional leagues with playoff systems are team sports, yet often only one player is blamed for not living up to expectations.

Why the obsession with the playoffs here, then? They are, to many, a way to easily decide the ‘objectively’ best team in a certain sport – whichever team beats the other good teams theoretically must be the best. Of course, the easiest way does not always mean the best way. Playoffs are necessarily a small sample size, and luck often plays a larger role than talent.
A baseball season is 162 games over six months, but only one month of, at most, twenty games for one team decides the championship. Just last month, MLB Kansas City Royals advanced to the World Series after a string of miraculous wins; they were exceptionally lucky and rode that luck all the way to the precipice of a championship. But it would be hard to argue that they were even the second – best team in the MLB – they were just on a hot streak.

The media’s treatment of the playoffs is reductive and lazy, and basically propagates the idea that the team that wins is always better, that the result is always more important than the process. The playoffs have become an artificially constructed marker of importance, a stage in which to judge players or teams under entirely constructed ‘pressure.’ Sure, athletes want to win championships, perhaps more than anything – but this stage has become the means of truly defining an athlete, based off their ability in very specific circumstances, as opposed to the larger picture.

For some reason, there is a distinct dislike for teams or players that perform well over the course of the regular season. Every player seems to have something to prove until they win a championship – there’s almost nothing someone can do to escape the ‘choker’ or ‘soft’ narrative. Roberto Luongo, one of the best goalies in the NHL, is still known as a ‘choker’ because of his performance in the 2011 Stanley Cup final; nevermind the fact that he won a gold medal for Team Canada at the Winter Olympics a year prior after defeating their biggest rival. The playoffs signify, to the media, the time when the games really matter – as opposed to the months before, when the games that needed to be won to even get to the playoffs were somehow slightly less important – and the best teams or players will ‘raise’ their play.

Forget the day-to-day or week-to-week consistency of the regular season; the media (and, by influence, the fans) want the short streak of luck or brilliance during the playoffs. Only the best players or teams can do this, apparently, which leads the media to fawn over average players who got hot at the right time (such as hockey’s Danny Briere and football’s Joe Flacco, to name a few) and castigate the unlucky ones (basketball’s Chris Paul, football’s Matt Ryan, the entire roster of hockey’s San Jose Sharks). A player is questioned and questioned until they win a championship; after that, the player is forever given the benefit of the doubt. The old narrative is completely erased from the discourse. For instance, Peyton Manning was widely derided as a regular season stat-stuffer who choked in the playoffs; however, after a 2006 Super Bowl victory against an overmatched Chicago Bears team, he was suddenly given the media cachet of one of the all-time greats.

This is not to say that the playoffs are bad or not fun to watch, but merely that they are imperfect ways to decide a best team. They are given entirely too much precedent, and this leads to lazy, unfair media narratives. Any playoff system must be appreciated for its variability – over such a small time, unexpected things are bound to happen. Playoffs do not always point out the ‘best,’ as it is often mistaken for, but instead just the luckiest. The playoffs are fun, unpredictable, exciting, wild, stupendous, amazing, dramatic, what have you but they’re often not the best way to actually decide upon a best team in a given year. Perhaps the obsession with playoffs can only be described as a regional thing: it seems distinctly North American to shun consistency and instead reward short, incandescent flashes of brilliance.