American Culture

NCAA Final Four: Kentucky vs. UConn reminds us how bad American sports are at deciding champions

US sports leagues reward inferior teams and routinely deny their best teams the championship.

Richard Allen Smith and I have argued from time to time about the merits of the BCS vs. the NCAA basketball tournament. Rich defends the BCS, while I point out its unfairness and corruption. He argues that the BCS does (did) a good job at getting the two best teams on the field for the final game, and that the single-elimination format of the Dance routinely allows inferior teams to win.

Whatever you may think about the BCS, it has to be said that Rich is right about March Madness. Tonight we’re going to see a “national championship” game featuring a team whose regular season performance merited them a seed in the 28-31 range playing a team whose record earned them an 8 seed – which is to say, they were somewhere in the early- to mid-30s.

Kentucky and UConn are both playing great ball right now and they have succeeded in the system we have. They have won the games on the floor and they have beaten some very good teams. So I don’t want to take anything away from them. At the same time, I don’t want to give them anything they haven’t really earned, either.

As spectacle, March Madness is unparalleled. It’s a marketing marvel. It is, for all practical purposes, a license to print money. Which means that by the standards we hold dear here in the US, it’s as good as it gets.

If your goal is to reward the best team, however, it’s a travesty (as was the BCS, although the new playoff system will be better). And, it has to be said, the same holds for the systems we use to determine most of our champions. NFL, NHL, MLB, MLS – all are more about generating marketing dollars than giving the trophy to the best team.

What do I mean by that term “best team”? Good question – glad you asked. The best team is the one that, in a league, posts the best record over an identical schedule. In a head-to-head situation, the best team is the one that, if the two hypothetically played 99 times at a neutral site, would win at least 50 games.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few months – maybe longer – and I believe these basic principles are the foundation for an ideal championship system.

  1. All games should count equally.
  2. Playoffs should only be employed when it isn’t possible to determine a champion via a balanced regular season – that is, when there are too many teams for everyone to play everyone else.
  3. In a league where a playoff system is necessary, the regular season should eliminate as many teams as possible – no wildcards.
  4. Playoff systems should mitigate against the “on any given Sunday” effect – where possible, victors should be determined over the course of a series of games instead of single-elimination match-ups.
  5. No undefeated/untied team can be denied an opportunity to compete for the title. There can never be two undefeated/untied teams.

As my regular readers know, I’m a huge soccer fan, and we find the best approach to crowning champions in European football leagues. Take the English Premier League, for example. The structure is pretty elegant. You have 20 teams. Each one plays all the others twice – home and away – and after 38 rounds they hand the hardware to the team with the best record. Done.

The beauty of this format is that everyone plays the same schedule and it rewards the team that was best over the course of the entire season, not just the last month. (I’m looking at you, NFL.) A team with a .500 record never gets to knock an undefeated team out of the playoffs in a winner-take-all single-elim situation and you get a lot fewer arguments about how the best team didn’t really win. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever heard that meme surrounding a European league season.

Yes, you do get upsets with their tournaments sometimes – the FA Cup and League Cup have single elimination formats and the better team loses quite often (as is the case this year, where the semi-finals feature the #4 team in the Prem and three teams that aren’t even in the top flight). The Champions League format is less prone to this, but sometimes weaker teams take out the big dogs over a two-leg series or the one-game final, which is what happened when my favorite team, Chelsea, won the CL a couple of years ago. This was the worst team Chelsea has fielded since I started following them back in 2000, and they finished seventh in the league that year, which was a far more realistic position for them.

Of course, it isn’t always possible to play everyone twice in a season. There are hundreds of teams in NCAA D1 basketball. Dozens play at the top level of college football, and even if you could play everyone, the physical demands of the game are such that you certainly couldn’t play them twice. Same goes for the NFL – a 16-game season is brutal enough and there are 32 teams in the league. So the Euro football model doesn’t work for all competitions.

The principles I outline above, though, illustrate a blueprint for these situations. Let’s take the case of NCAA football. Teams are currently aligned in ten conferences. Perfect. Play the regular season, then enter the league champions in a tournament. The winners of the top six leagues get a bye and the other four have a play-in round. It might not be as satisfying as if they played best-of-threes, but it’s the best you can practically do.

In NCAA hoops you have 32 leagues. How wonderfully symmetrical. Conference winners are slotted into a 32-team bracket and each round is a best-of-three. (And if you trot out that student-athletes-have-to-go-to-class silliness I’m going to mock you right here in front of everybody.)

Now, I’m sure some of you are screaming that this format leaves some outstanding teams at home (you know, like the two playing for the championship tonight), while the winners of really bad leagues get to dance. Yes, but understand a basic premise: you can’t be the best team in the country if you aren’t even the best team in your conference. The regular season is the elimination round.

What about the NFL? Well, the best way to do it, given the physical constraints of the game, would be to realign into four eight-team divisions. The four winners enter the playoffs. How much more satisfying would this be than the current system, which on six occasions has seen the Lombardi Trophy lifted by teams that couldn’t even win their divisions?

The NHL and NBA are ridiculous, of course. They play 80+ game regular seasons to eliminate three teams and then embark on a playoff process that feels like it takes years. The NBA, at least, usually winds up with the right champion, thanks to the nature of the game (fewer players involved increases the importance of the best ones) and the fact that a bad team simply has no hope against a better team in a seven-game series. Only once in league history has a #8 seed beaten a #1 seed in a playoff round.

So the problem with The League, then, is simply that they let everyone into the playoffs for no good reason. Seriously, if you’re so dog-butt you can’t make the postseason in the East you should have your franchise revoked.

Hockey is a special case, and not in a good way. Since the sport has so many players participating (19 in most games) the impact of the very best players is diluted, leading to more variability in the outcomes. Of all the major sports played in the US, the NHL is your best bet to see a low seed winning the title, as happened with the #8 LA Kings in 2012. How to solve this? Division winners only, seven-game series.

The MLS system is also silly. They actually could use a European system, given the number of teams, but I think they avoid it because they want to emphasize regional rivalries more. Also, travel – Seattle is a long way from the East Coast, whereas England is roughly the size of Jacksonville, which makes trips to away games no big deal. Oh yeah, and money. Playoffs mean money.

This assures outlying results, like in 2010 when my Colorado Rapids barely snuck into the playoffs and then all of a sudden got hot and won it all. I was happy and a little embarrassed all at once.

In other words, American sports leagues do not emphasize awarding championships to the worthiest teams. They emphasize playing as many games as possible in order to maximize revenue.

Nothing wrong with revenue, of course. Nothing wrong with having games. I love watching games. And please don’t get me wrong about March Madness. I have called the first weekend the best four days in American sports. My gods, the drama. We love underdogs and we hate Duke – sports fans don’t tune in because they’re stupid. It’s legitimately compelling.

But ask yourself – is Mercer really better than Duke? If they played 99 times, how many would Mercer win? Three, four? During the season they found ways to lose to Evansville, Ohio U, North Florida (twice) and freakin’ USC Upstate.

Their win over the Dukies filled a nation with joy, but what does it say about the credibility of a system where a team that weak completely jinks up the outcome? Put it another way – what do you think would have happened had that win been the first game in a best-of-three series? If you’re still resisting the obvious, let’s frame it this way: how much money would you have bet that they’d beat the Blue Devils again?

I think a lot of us probably like the idea that the champion and the best team are, you know, the same team. In theory, the whole point of playing is to figure out who’s best. But that’s not how it works in the US, is it?

If the goal is fun, leave it alone. If the goal is to create drama, the way American sports leagues determine champions is wonderful. If the goal is to generate metric fucktons of cash, then we shouldn’t just do what we’re doing, we should find ways to do more of it.

But if the goal is to reward the best team, then we’re doing it all wrong.

3 replies »

  1. It’s not really possible to like either one of these teams.

    The only redeeming part of the whole thing is listening to Calipari and the NCAA join forces to preach against one and done. I havent followed their arguments closely, but my guess is they’re pushing for two and done, i.e., more money for them, rather than the ethical solution, zero and done.

  2. I like the March Madness format. It’s like a quaint and dare I say cheeky throw at the FA Cup by America, but for college teams.

    Everyone follows MM because of its unpredictability and the underdog syndrome. That’s what makes this particular competition so popular. If the best team always won then it’s nothing more than rewarding the top recruitment program and not the hard work and luck that any dog can provide on its day.

    That said, I still don’t watch it, because I’m not an Ice Hockey fan.