Which is the better format?: “Home and Away Aggregate” or “Final Four”

The EHF Champions League has decided to dramatically alter its format next season by replacing home and away aggregate matches for the semifinals/final with a final four tournament. So which format it better? I’ll go over the pros and cons and try to answer that question. And just because I’m an American, I’ll propose another and better alternative.

[b]The Formats[/b]

[u]Home and Away Aggregate (H and A): [/u]This traditional format has the two teams playing two matches, one on each club’s home floor. The matches are typically a week apart and the winner advances based on the aggregate score for the two matches.

[u]Final Four (FF):[/u] Borrowed from the massively successful American NCAA tournament http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Final_four and later adopted by the basketball Euroleague this format is a simple knock out tournament played over one weekend at a neutral site. The semifinals will be played on Saturday with the winners squaring off in the finals on Sunday.

[u]Best of Seven playoff (B of 7):[/u] Over a span of two weeks two clubs play matches every 2 or 3 days until one team wins 4 matches. Teams alternate hosting matches with either a 2-2-1-1-1 or 2-3-2 split. This is, of course, my American alternative and the format that the NBA, NHL and MLB have used for years. I also realize that there are a whole host of reasons why this format can’t be implemented for the European Champions League. More to say on that later, but keep in mind this is a theoretical piece.

[b]Pros and Cons[/b]

1) Which of these formats is best for the local home town fans?

For this question I think it’s a pretty good assumption that this question boils down to which format is going to give me more games to see at my local arena?
[u]H and A:[/u] Local fans would get to see either 1 game (semifinalists) or 2 games (finalists) in their local arena.
[u]FF:[/u] Unless they happen to live near the host city they’re going to have to travel to the final four. And for some fans this will be too expensive. For other fans, they might not be able to get a ticket with a good seat.
[u]B of 7:[/u] Local fans would get to see at least 2 games and possibly 4 (semifinalists) in their local arena. Finalists would get at least 4 games and possibly 8 games.
[u]Assessment: [/u] Using the strictly numbers theory, B of 7 is clearly the best format followed by H and A. For local fans an FF is a disaster.

2) Which of these formats is best for the fans watching on TV?

For the hard core fan, this question again boils down to simply determining which format provides more matches. For those fans it’s a no brainer to want to see the top 4 teams playing each other as many times as possible. For less casual fans the answer to this question is a little more nuanced as the concept of seeing too much of a good thing may start to apply.
[u]H and A:[/u] Using this format for both the semifinals and finals would result in a total of 6 matches for the TV viewer. This traditional format will serve up compelling handball, but in my opinion is hampered somewhat by the 1 week layoff between each match.
[u]FF:[/u] As this is a knockout tournament it will simply involve 3 total matches for the TV viewer. Each of these 3 matches will be must see for hard core and casual fans. The only shame is that it will be all over so quickly.
[u]B of 7:[/u] If the semifinals and finals were to use this format there would be 3 best of 7 series for a minimum of 12 to a maximum of 21 games for the TV viewer. This format is a feast for hard core fans, but is it too much of a good thing for the casual fan? To answer this I will draw upon my own personal experience in following the NBA for 30+ years. In my younger years I was clearly a hard core fan who watched virtually every playoff game from beginning to end. As I’ve become a fan of other sports and family commitments have eaten away at my personal leisure time I’ve become much more casual in my NBA devotion. The NBA now uses the best of 7 format for all 16 teams that make the playoffs and there’s absolutely no way that anyone can watch so many matches. In the early rounds, I will definitely pick and choose what games I watch and even then I find myself fast forwarding to the 4th quarter fairly often. But as the teams are eliminated my interest picks up and I watch more and more. This year, the semifinals (Lakers-Nuggets and Magic-Cavaliers) were genuinely compelling. And the sequence of the matches with the two series playing on alternate nights for 12 straight nights creates a rhythm that is pretty hard to beat for the TV viewer. There’s certainly, no need to wait very long to see how a team will respond to a tough loss.
[u]Assessment:[/u] As is probably fairly obvious by my lengthy diatribe on the merits of watch a B of 7 on TV, I think it’s the best format for fans watching on TV. For hardcore fans there should be no debate whatsoever. And while there may be an overload concern for less casual fans, I think they would still be engaged with the B of 7 format for the last four teams. If it was done also for the round of 16 and quarterfinals, though, a strong case could be made that too many fans would lose interest.

3) Which of these formats is best for fans with the time and funds to travel to matches?

[u]Assessment: [/u] This category is a no-brainer victory for the FF format as it is the only format which will allow a fan willing to travel to make trip plans months in advance. This includes fans of the clubs involved, as well as, a handball fan who doesn’t even care if his club is in the tournament. In fact, if done right, the final four could become a destination event for a certain coterie of fans who simply make plans to attend it every year. I for one, could envision planning a trip to Europe to coincide with the final four, especially if it’s in a destination city. London’s O2 arena perhaps?

4) Which of these formats would provide the best arena atmosphere?

The FF format is again the clear winner here. It’s really hard to beat the party atmosphere that is created when 4 clubs and their followers descend on one venue for the semifinals.

5) How fair are these formats to the teams?

But who cares about the fans. Which format is the fairest in terms of not giving one side a clear advantage over the other.
[u]H and A:[/u] Perfectly symmetrical; this is the ultimate in fairness
[u]FF: [/u]At a final four, fairness will clearly depend on the teams and location. Clearly.
[u]B of 7:[/u] The club with home court advantage has the advantage, but over 7 games this advantage can be overcome by the better team.
[u]Assessment:[/u] This category clearly favors the H and A, with the only marginal advantage given to either side being the opportunity to host the 2nd game. B of 7 is also a pretty fair format with the most significant advantage being the opportunity to host a 7th and deciding game. A huge advantage, but one that is mitigated by playing 7 games. In a two game series one bad game can spell doom for a team, but over 7 games the better team more often than not is going to come out on top. A FF is only fair if the court is truly neutral. Unfortunately, this is often not the case and the German sides will have a clear advantage next year in Cologne. Additionally, it’s tough to bounce back from a bad game in a two game series, but in a knock out tournament it’s impossible to.

6) Which of these formats is the most profitable?

Well, the answer to this question depends somewhat on who’s asking the question and how the money is split up. Clearly individual clubs stand to make money by hosting matches at their arenas. The EHF also gets a slice of that money as well as TV rights fees. How all that money is split is not clear, but I will speculate on how they compare financially.
[u]H and A: [/u] This format would feature 6 games at to be determined arenas, some of which might be of modest size. I’m guessing that the host clubs keep the attendance receipts mostly for themselves as well.
[u]FF:[/u] While only 3 games will be played these matches can be staged at a large arena and probably for significantly inflated ticket prices. I’m also guessing the EHF folks ran the numbers and determined that more money could be made for the EHF otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it. I would guess that TV revenue will also increase for these must see games. It’s less clear, however, how profitable this format will be for the individual teams. Surely, they will get their slice, but I expect they will make less money overall.
[u]B of 7:[/u] If fully implemented this format would also be a cash cow for European Handball. Profits, of course, would depend on the arenas, but a major TV contract for these playoffs would likely eclipse the other two formats.
[u]Assessment: [/u]There are a lot of variables that factor into this answer. Those variables include arena size, ability to fill that arena and TV contracts

7) Which of these formats would provide the most drama?

This is a tough one to answer because I’ve seen pretty high drama with all 3 formats. Here’s the pros and cons:
[u]H and A:[/u] On the plus side the aggregate factor eliminates the possibility of a boring match in the first leg as both teams will play to the end with the knowledge that every goal counts. On the negative side, the 2nd match could be essentially over midway through the first half if one side has a big aggregate lead. Still it’s hard to beat the drama of a match going down to the wire in this format.
[u]FF:[/u] Win or go home always has the potential for drama. Additionally, the knockout format makes it more feasible for a weaker side to rise up get that 1 upset victory.
[u]B of 7:[/u] With a B of 7 format the drama question often depends on the matchup. If one team is overwhelmingly better few will sit through 4 blowout matches. But, if the teams are competitive than it’s pretty tough to beat the drama that can ensue. Each game builds upon the next. If one team is blown out or suffers an overtime loss everyone wants to see how they will respond the next game. Add a scuffle or two or some incendiary post game commentary by one of the coaches or players and the drama builds even more. Ciudad Real – Kiel played two great matches; instead of being tied 1-1 and moving on to game 3 it’s over just as it should be getting started.

As a hard core fan, I’m going to vote in order of which format gives me the most games, so B of 7 is my clear winner, followed by H and A and FF. From a current marketing standpoint, though, I’m going to give the edge to the new Final Four format. It’s probably the right move at the right time for the EHF and it will undoubtedly give the sport a grand weekend and great exposure.

[b]A final conceptual argument: Could a B of 7 be done for Handball?[/b]

To start off let’s reverse this theoretically exercise (i.e., Ask the question for the NBA: Which format is best?) I think it would be virtually impossible to find anyone who would recommend an NBA Final Four or Home and Away aggregate. The concept of the NBA changing to either format is laughable. So if this format works for this very successful basketball league, can it work for European Handball?

The answer is no, but it has nothing to do with the sport Handball, itself. Handball is more physically demanding than basketball, but two top professional Handball clubs could play a B of 7 over 2.5 weeks. If it can be done for a contact sport like Ice Hockey, it can be done for Handball. Enough said on this topic.

The reason it can’t be done is simply that the current league structures/schedule in multiple countries won’t support the time required it would take to implement a playoff system. Or to put it more sarcastically, meaningless and all too often lop-sided regular season matches are preferred to compelling matches pitting the very best against each other. The only way such a playoff system could be implemented would be to ditch the national leagues in favor of a true European Super League. And with national interests involved it will be tough to change the current landscape any time soon. Although, I think I could make a strong case for it, I’ll save that for another commentary.