What is the purpose of the playoffs in sports?

I’m not asking why people watch, I’m asking in general.

It’s obviously not to crown the best team in the league; you can do that at the end of the regular season, or with a much shorter playoff series.

It’s not to crown the most consistent team; teams that get hot near the end can win it all just as much as the ones who are consistently good.

Is it to crown the team that can perform best under intensified pressure? That feels closer, but it still feels like something is missing.

What say you?

because they’re fun to watch

Baseball----- at the turn of the 20th century there were two separate leagues, the National League and the American League, and to determine a champion, the two best W-L “round robin” winners from each would face each other in a best of 9 (then reduced to 7) “World Series”. This expanded into “East” v "West " playoffs in the 60s because more teams were added and it became too difficult because of the amount of teams and travel for both leagues to determine WS participants based on a simple round robin system.

This was expanded to East-Coast-West champions + wild card in playoffs from each league in the 90s when the league went to three divisions per league because of further expansion and TV scheduling.

The recent second wild card team is an artificial creation to create fan interest and include more teams in the “playoff race” and thus more fan interest as the season winds down.

NFL—of all the American sports, football lends itself best to playoffs because of the short 16 game schedule; by all rights MORE teams should be allowed, not less, to determine a true champion. The NFL, when it used to be only 12 games, used to put East champion v West champion in a single NFL championship game. As the league expanded, playoffs were added, and then finally a “Super Bowl” with the AFL champion. Playoffs have since expanded further, but with 32 teams, only 16 games, you can see how a “round robin” format with all 32 teams playing each other on an annual basis is a mathematical impossibility.

Many American sports fans gripe with the 16 team NHL and NBA playoffs because of their already 82/80 games seasons. The NBA at least makes SOME sense: because of geography, it was impossible to have teams stretched over the country to play each other a set amount of times; that said there have always been inter-division playoffs which resulted in the NBA Finals going back to the 50s. Basketball is a sport that seems to love tournaments here.

Of all four leagues, the NHL has always been the biggest culprit when coming up with illogical and unfair playoff systems. There was one point when the 1st and second best regular season teams would play each other in the FIRST ROUND of the playoffs. In the “Original Six” era even though there were only 6 teams, all within a reasonable travel distance from one another, even after playing 70 games where surely, a Champion could be determined via round robin Won-Loss record, the top 4 teams would still enter a Stanley Cup Playoff.

In 1966-67, when the league expanded to 6 teams, the Original Six would be placed in the Eastern Division, and the survivor of the same 4 team playoff would face the winner of the four team playoff—from the Western Division—consisting off all brand new Expansion teams! (IIRC, the St. Louis Blues would get blanked, 4 games to none, by Montreal the first two years).

In the early 80s, despite only having I think 21 teams in four divisions, the NHL, now after a 82 games season, would allow the top 4 teams from each division in the playoffs-----with each team trying to playoff out of its own division, then conference. In other words, you would play 82 regular games to eliminate 5 of 21 teams from the playoffs, bringing up decades of complaints about the regular season being meaningless.

Im not sure what the NHL’s fetish is with playoffs, not that they aren’t great, but I’m guessing the roots might be somewhere in the Stanley Cup Charter; and a desire to milk an extra buck out of the fans and TV networks.

In Australian sport, it’s merely to artificially prolong the hopes of the also rans.

That’s an interesting post, I never new/thought about the historical backgrounds of American pro sports leagues. But I believe that the last sentence rings most true if one would answer the question more universally, or generally, because even in small countries where there never were two competing leagues and where travel during the season is a non-issue, playoffs is the preferred method (soccer leagues being an exception, I think). And the reason is simply that the fans love it and their bucks are milked, so everyone’s happy (aside of the occasional team who was best over the whole season and got kicked out in the first playoff round).


Going into the last week of a baseball season with a 12 game lead means there is nothing interesting going on. Playoffs provide drama - the stakes are heightened, the time frame is shorter, it’s “win or go home”. Which is why playoffs have more interest and ratings than the regular season. The games mean something in a way that regular season games don’t.

This is part of the reason why the NFL gets higher ratings; with so few games each one is critical in a way that no regular season baseball, hockey, or basketball game can be.

Sports are about telling a story. Playoffs are more engaging stories than the regular season.

russian heel:

For those of us who are slightly less cynical, the second wild card/play-in game gives a clear advantage to a team winning its division, which means that fan interest is increased not only for teams on the edge of contention, but also for teams which have a post-season berth guaranteed but for whom the division title is still in question.

This is the one-word answer. To expand on it a bit, the following comment from the “Why is March Madness such a big deal” thread seems quite appropriate here:

Professional sports leagues are in the entertainment business. Their objective is to stimulate interest in their product in order to maximize the profits they make. The playoffs are designed with this objective in mind, not to determine the “best” team.

If you wanted to determine the objectively best team, as you say there are much better ways to evaluate that. In the Olympics the objective actually is to identify the very best athletes in the world, and the games for the most part are designed for that. (This is not to say that the Olympics are not also intended to make money.)

In order to provoke interest in the greatest number of cities, you have to include as many teams as possible without diluting the product too much. You have to give the competition an element of fairness, in that the better teams have a better chance to win. But you also have to have an element of drama, which is contributed by uncertainty, so that the outcome is not a foregone conclusion. Even the worst team in the playoffs has to have some shot at the title (although some underdogs will measure their success in terms of how many rounds they advance).

It is that. It’s just that there’s a particular meaning to “best” which is connoted by “champion” but not by “regular season champion.”

I’m not an historian or anything, but I think we basically use sport as a spectator warfare-analog. You can’t have gladiatorial games or a joust or an actual pitched battle where you declare a winner based on “record” – you compete until one side is dead or “dead” and then the one who isn’t dead is who won. You’re only the best if there’s one particular contest where we say “the one who wins this, that’s the champ,” and then you win that.

I’m not sure how common it was for people to argue about whether one knight was actually better than another knight, and only lost because of some fluke thing, or whether one army was better than another but the other army lost because of the weather. I bet it was pretty common.

Fans want a champion. Playoffs provide a champion.

The best team is the team who has a winning season. From start to finish. There will be ups and downs during the season but the teams with the best records earned the right to participate in the playoffs. The winner of the playoffs is that seasons champion.

Look at the decades of college football fans who demand a playoff between the various conference champions and/or bowl winners. If there is a big enough demand, and someone figures out how to make a profit from even more playoffs :wink: , and the televised spectaculars don’t infringe on the money-making airtime of the other popular sports, there will be an actual champion instead of some group voting for who might have done what IF THE TEAMS HAD ACTUALLY MET ON THE FIELD.

The answer really is money. Look at the NCAA basketball tournament. I love it. You probably love it. But did the field of teams really have to expand from 32 to 64 and then to 68? If Syracuse wins it this year are we going to call them the best team in NCAA basketball this season?
More games means more money. It’s especially true in professional sports where every team plays every other team, like the NBA. We know the Warriors are hands down the best team in the league and the Spurs are 2nd best. We don’t need playoffs to tell us that. We certainly don’t need 8 teams from the Eastern Conference in the playoffs, but we’ll get it anyway and many of us will watch.

But without the NHL’s ridiculous love for playoffs, we wouldn’t have the charming tradition of octopi being thrown on the ice.

Travel is a big part of it for US sports. It’s really impossible to play balanced schedules due the amount of travel required and the disparity of travel by team. This is magnified by the fact that the US sport seasons are either too long - 82 games for the NBA and NHL and 162 for MLB - or too short- 16 games for NFL. It’s not possible to create a balanced schedule, one in which each team plays each other an equal number of times (home and away). So how do you “prove” who is the best? When you look at the European soccer leagues, the 34 or 38 game season schedules create a convenient balance between games, rest and the short travel times to have every team play each other twice yielding a true champion, and also allow for mid-week cup games (which are playoffs).

It gives 4, 8 or 12 teams a chance to win the championship. Against each other.

We want to see if the Spurs can topple the Warriors, etc.

As an aside, soccer does seem to be an odd bird as it pertains to shoehorning the sport into “playoffs”. There’s such little scoring, and such physical exertion, thats its been rare here in States to see soccer playoff outcomes decided in “best of 2/3 series”; with the exception of the last NASL championship which was an actual Best of 3 series, the closest here was the old NASL “best of 2” and if both teams were at 1 win each, a mini-game. Most leagues have adopted a home and away aggregate system such as in the UEFA League and some Cup ties.

Rare exceptions seem to be the World Cup, which has perfected the one and done knockout tournament.

Given the incredible amount of money playoffs generate, I think the answer - already stated - is really beyond any possible argument. I mean, why is the football season 16 games long and not 14? Money. The leagues will get in as many games and playoff rounds as they reasonably can given the logistics involved and conditions of the sport.

Professional sports leagues would lose absolutely gigantic scads of money if they had no playoffs. It’s not just playoff revenue, it’s the fact that the absence of playoffs would make far more regular season games irrelevant.

Last year, in Major League Baseball, if you’d just had the best team in the major leagues be awarded the championship, no one would have cares about the September games for the Dodgers, Mets, Astros, Rangers, Blue Jays, Yankees, Angels, and a few other teams that made the playoffs or just missed, because all were hopelessly far behind St. Louis. Even the Royals were pretty much hopelessly behind by the time the last few weeks rolled around. You reduce the playoff run interest from 10-14 teams to two or three in most years, thus costing you zillions in lost ticket sales and TV viewership indifference.

And incidentally, why does anyone think the best regular season team is better than the playoff champion?

Last year the St. Louis Cardinals were 100-62 in the regular season, and Kansas City was 95-67. But if we count the playoffs St. Louis was 101-65 and Kansas City was 106-72. They’re very close in winning percentage, and Kansas City did better in the games that mattered more. St. Louis also played in a demonstrably inferior league. I am unconvinced St. Louis was a better team. If the playoffs are the means by which a champion is determined, then performance in the playoffs must be considered part of who was the “best team” in that season.

But in the best division within that league, FWIW.
“The best team throughout the entirety of the season” and “the best team at the end of the season” are not (necessarily) the same thing. Teams get better or worse throughout the season, due to changes in personnel (trades, players going on or coming off the DL, etc.), players improving and learning to work together effectively, players getting injured and worn out. One might make an argument that the playoffs are a reasonable way of determining who is the best team at that moment in time (as opposed to over the course of the whole season).

That’s true too, of course. The Blue Jays were a much better team in September than they were in May. The Nationals got off to a good start and were strangling each other by September.

If we look at other sports… like, boxing is basically always the playoffs. Once you’re the champion every fight is the elimination game. I think most anyone would agree that Mike Tyson was a greater boxer than Buster Douglas, but on that one day Douglas was better, so he became the champion, and he deserved it.