Posted by: Mike Cornelius | January 16, 2022

The Downside Of The Playoff Money Grab

Less is more.  The concept is hardly new.  Robert Browning used the phrase in his 1855 poem “Andrea del Sorto,” a dramatic monologue about the Renaissance Italian painter.  The architect Ludwig Mies, the last director of the Bauhaus, who fled Germany for the United States when the Nazis came to power, employed the term to describe his preference for minimalist architecture.  But suggest the idea to the leaders of any major sport, and the reaction will be at best a quizzical squint, as if the thought were utterly alien, and more likely a sour face, as if the words themselves were rancid.

If a 32-team FIFA World Cup is good, expanding soccer’s preeminent international soccer competition to forty-eight teams must be better.  And isn’t it perfectly logical that the response of UEFA, the governing body of European football, to the quickly aborted effort of a handful of clubs to form a super league, should be to recommend expanding the Champions League competition by adding four more teams, bringing the total contestants to thirty-six? 

On this side of the Atlantic, the Great Game’s annual hot stove season has been replaced by a winter of discontent, with MLB owners locking out players and negotiations on the key economic issues of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement at a standstill for six weeks until a brief and apparently fruitless session just in the past few days.  But one issue of major importance to owners, on which the MLBPA is apparently willing to agree, is expansion of the playoffs.  As has been widely reported, the debate is not whether the number of teams qualifying for the postseason will increase, but by how many, with the owners proposing a 14-team tournament and the players’ counteroffer, for now, at a dozen.

Which brings us to Wild Card Weekend, the annual start to the NFL playoffs and the first step on the postseason road that will end a month from now at SoFi Stadium with the players of the last team standing passing around the Lombardi Trophy.  Except that this year the first round of games has been renamed Super Wild Card Weekend, a nod to the expansion of the league’s tournament field from twelve teams to fourteen, which began last year, and perhaps also to this year’s lengthening of the regular season to seventeen games.  After all, any club that has made it through that gauntlet with a good enough record to play on must be somewhat super, even if it never comes close to taking the field on that final Sunday in Inglewood.

It makes for great marketing – surely for Roger Goodell and company the only thing better would be selling naming rights to the three days of gridiron action.  But the underlying assumption noted above is patently false. 

There are of course instances where expanding a postseason makes sense.  The College Football Playoff, which in its current 4-team format must exclude at least one of the Power 5 conferences every year, in turn requiring regular season perfection by a Group of Five school to even garner consideration from the CFP Selection Committee, is the obvious example.  But even there, the proposal to triple the field to twelve teams that was announced as an all-but-done deal months ago by a working group of conference commissioners struck some as overreach at the time.  It’s dead for now, though the demise is as much about inter-conference politics as it is about a reasoned discussion of the point at which expansion yields diminishing returns in the level of competition.

One might think such an analysis would be the basis for determining the optimal size of a tournament, especially for a professional league’s postseason, which is free from considerations of adequate conference or national representation.  That of course is laughably naïve.  These decisions are always, and only, about money.

More teams in the postseason means more games in the postseason, the part of the schedule, no matter the sport, that always attracts the most television viewers and is thus worth the most in rights negotiations with networks.  For the NFL, expanding the playoff field from twelve to fourteen meant adding two games to the Wild Card round.  With six games on tap the next logical step was to spread those contests over three days instead of two, with the addition of a Monday night game on ESPN ensuring that all the league’s television partners would have the opportunity to broadcast, and pay for, a playoff game.

Both the networks and the league were confident that fans would watch, and they will be correct whether the eventual ratings data shows viewership up or down from previous years.  Which does not mean that what fans will have seen was competitive football.  The theory is that once the postseason starts all teams, in any sport, ratchet up their game to its highest level.  But last year three of the six Wild Card games were won by double-digit margins, and this weekend has seen Buffalo blow out New England and Tampa Bay toy with Philadelphia.  Of the four contests that have been decided, only the 49ers 23-17 win over the Cowboys was an upset, and that came in the game that had the narrowest betting line, with Dallas favored by just three points, the traditional margin given to a home team. 

As this is written, the game between Kansas City and Pittsburgh, which most fans and pundits expect to be the most lopsided of the weekend, is just getting underway.  But even if the Steelers should pull off an improbable victory and somehow march on to a Super Bowl title, how much does it devalue the regular season if a team that was not assured of a winning record until the final play of its final scheduled game winds up lifting the Lombardi trophy?  Why should that franchise even be given the chance to play for the NFL’s most cherished hardware? 

The answer is obvious.  It is because of another enduring phrase, one that like “less is more” has also been around for a long time, one that in professional sports, trumps all.  Money talks.

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