In Part 1, I highlighted how Europeans might want to consider making their sports leagues more like their Governments. In Part 2, I provided an overall framework for a European Super League In Part 3 of this series I take on the totally absurd notion that NBA/NHL style playoffs won’t work for European Professional Handball.
First, let’s establish that I’m a big fan of the sport of Handball. Heck, I’ll go out on a limb and state that I am the #1 fan of the sport in the U.S. Certainly, I doubt that any of my 308,000,000 compatriots watch more Handball on TV or the internet on a yearly basis. (If you think you’re a bigger fan, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org and will compare notes.) So, it should be clear, I’m not here to bash the sport. In fact, you’ll be hard pressed to find a bigger promoter of it.
Secondly, I’m not some clueless American who doesn’t understand European sports traditions. On the contrary, I lived five years in France and became totally immersed in the club sport culture. I played one season of lower division Handball and four years of over age 35 basketball in Levallois, a suburb of Paris. Ask me what I enjoyed the most about living in France and I will say without hesitation it was playing club sports. Oh, how I wish the U.S. had clubs where individuals of every level can play from the age of 5 years to 70. (Yes, incredibly there was a 70 year old player on our basketball team. I’ll never forget figuring out just how old he was after he told me about the Americans throwing him candy from the tanks back in 1945.)
Third, I think I’ve got a pretty good understanding of European professional club handball. Living in France, I became a pretty big of the French League and this year, I’ve enjoyed watching around 70 German Bundesliga matches. It’s truly been great to immerse myself in what is clearly the top professional Handball league in the world.
So, sorry for the diatribe, but I think I’ve got some pretty strong credentials to take on this topic. And while there are many aspects of the American sports model, I’d like to see Europeans adopt, the most needed reform is clearly the addition of playoffs. I’ve always thought this, but the TV viewing choices I have made the last few weeks have brought even greater clarity to the validity of this position. To further explain, let’s just say that there are only so many hours in a day available to watch sports. And earlier this year, for the first time in my life, I could choose to watch traditional American sports or Handball. And while I didn’t go cold turkey on the sports I grew up with, Handball took priority. Even more remarkably, basketball, my first sport passsion, became an afterthought.
But as Hamburg’s run to an HBL title became all but apparent my interest started to wane and since the NBA playoffs started in mid April my DVR queue has started to pile up with HBL matches. Why would
America’s self-proclaimed #1 Handball fan suddenly prefer to watch basketball over handball? Do I really have to explain this? OK, the answer is:
In terms of entertainment value, meaningless games with no bearing whatsoever on a championship cannot even begin to compete with the compelling “do or die” nature of a playoff format.
I’d like to maintain that even defenders of the championship format won’t argue this point. They might argue about the logistics and the fairness of playoffs, but nobody in their right mind should argue about the entertainment value. Seriously, do you want to watch Balingen-Kiel with nothing on the line or game 5 of Kiel vs. Hamburg for the title?
However, entertainment value is not everything. Although, arguably for a professional sports league it should be the most important thing. But, since this is Europe there are other reasons to defend the Championship model. Herewith are some of those reasons and a rebuttal as to why they aren’t valid.
1) It’s not the fairest way to determine a champion. Players could be injured at the end of the season and a team that was playing poorly earlier in the year could get “hot” and win the title. Only a championship format will fairly reward a team for consistent performance.
Rebuttal: If every club knows the rules for determining the league winner before the season starts, then whatever method is used can be considered fair. Furthermore, what can be fairer than to have two teams play each other in a best of 5 or best of 7? Seriously, the likelihood that an inferior team is going to put together 4 upsets is pretty unlikely. No, if you can beat the other team 4 times, then clearly you are the better team.
2) Europeans only care about their local teams and are not interested in watching other teams play.
Rebuttal: If you have two high quality teams going head to head in a playoff series people will watch and when they watch, if they have a pulse, they can’t help but get drawn in. In the recent NBA playoffs, I found myself becoming a fan of the Memphis Grizzlies, an 8 seed that knocked off the 1 seed, San Antonio and then battled Oklahoma City to a game 7 final in the next round. I knew absolutely nothing about that team prior to the playoffs, yet ended up making sure I saw everyone of their games. Could the same thing happen in Handball? You bet and I would probably put middle of the road HBL side like Grosswalstadt in that category. Sure, their victory over Kiel in Kiel was interesting, but other than dropping Kiel down a notch what did it mean? Now, imagine Grosswalstadt as an 8 seed that #1 seed Hamburg has to be wary of in a 5 or 7 game series. Hey, that sounds interesting. I’m going make sure I see that.
3) It’s too many games. The season is long as it is. Adding playoff games will make it even longer.
Rebuttal: If you structure the league properly it won’t be too many games. In particular, in order to properly stage playoffs, it will be necessary to shorten the regular season a couple of months.
4) Clubs that don’t make the playoffs will have fewer games and will lose revenue. With a shortened regular season clubs that don’t make the playoffs will have nothing going on for the last couple of months. What will the players do and won’t that be devastating financially to those clubs?
Rebuttal: Well, I can’t argue about the fewer games. That’s life in the big city. The financial loss will not be devastating, however, if the league has revenue sharing for their TV contract. Not all of the revenue would be shared 100% equally, so clubs and players would still have lots of incentives for winning and advancing in the playoffs. As an aside, you might find it interesting to note that NBA players (especially those with high salaries) are ridiculously underpaid during the playoffs, making only a fraction more than their base salaries. In theory, if money was their only object, many of them would be better off losing and relaxing on the
5) These playoffs would interfere with Champions League. If two clubs were going head to head and one of them was still in the Champions League it would give an unfair advantage to the team that wasn’t.
Rebuttal: No argument from me on this one. This is why, if you re-read part 2, you’ll see where I highlight that Super League teams would not participate in the Champions League or National Cups. You can’t do both and as I explained if there was a true Super League, you wouldn’t want to. Don’t get me wrong as things are currently structured the Champions League is the best thing going. Next weekend, I’m really looking forward to the semifinals and final. Those games mean something as they are “do or die” and a championship is on the line. Still, if I had my druthers, those 4 sides wouldn’t be playing 2 knockout games. No, they’d be playing two best of 5 semifinal series. And instead of watching the Bulls vs. the Heat or the Mavericks vs. the Thunder on TV every other night I’d be taking turns watching R-N L vs. Barca and Hamburg vs. Ciudad Real. I can dream, can’t I?