Something became clear as the Copa America Centenario played out across the United States this summer. There are hardcore soccer fans in this country (of which we are 3). There are also sports fans opposed to soccer and see it as a non-American sport. And then there's the group of sports fans who are intrigued by the growing popularity of the sport, without a knowledge of where to start, what it all means, and why it matters.
That's where we come in. The purpose of this occasional blog series is to build a bridge for the casual sports fan to an understanding of soccer (football). Since our weekly podcast focuses on the most popular league in the world, that's where this series begins.
The English Premier League
The English Premier League (EPL) consists of 20 teams (clubs). Each season plays out from mid-August to mid-May with one match per week on average for each club. The games (matches) are usually played on the weekends, with occasional Monday and mid-week matches as well.
The season is 38 matches long. Each club plays the other 19 clubs twice, once at home and once away. This means that all 20 clubs play an identical schedule.
The matches themselves are 90 minutes long, with two 45-minute halves. The club that wins gets 3 points in the standings. Clubs who lose gets 0 points. If the match ends in a draw, each side gets 1 point.
Points are the primary way that the standings (or table) are sorted. Since each club plays an identical schedule, the club with the most points at the end of the 38-match season wins the title.
Wait...Where's the Playoff?
With the identical schedules, there is no need for a playoff. In our "To Playoff, Or Not to Playoff" podcast episode, we talk a lot about why this is good. For starters, it rewards the club that is the best over the course of the entire season. When a league has a playoff, the club that wins just has to play the best at the end of the season.
Even most of you hardcore American sports fans skip the baseball season until the All-Star Game, and even then, some of you wait until October. Basketball fans don't usually watch much basketball until Christmas -- which is more than 2 months after the start of the season. The shorter football season makes the NFL an exception, but it also magnifies a lack of balance in teams’ schedules.
EPL vs. NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL
There are pros and cons when you compare English soccer to the big four American sports leagues. The biggest con is that a championship can be decided before the final weekend of the season. If one club has a big enough lead in points in the table, they win. The season is still played out, but the title is already decided. This tends to dull the end of some seasons.
This is how Leicester City could win the EPL title last season while they were watching Chelsea play Tottenham. The scenes of watching the club celebrate from the comforts of Jamie Vardy’s home prompted a spike in use of the phrase, “Jamie Vardy’s having a party.” This was bizarre for American sports fans who are used to seeing a team with a title by winning their final game of the playoffs.
For most, another major con to the EPL’s lack of a playoff is that it is just…different. There is drama when the best teams at the end of a season play in a winner-take-all tournament. The title is decided on the field/court, say fans. True. But as we have established, the playoff system does not reward the best team – only the team that wins the final game.
Who was the better team in the 2015/16 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Golden State Warriors? It doesn’t matter in a playoff system. Remember when the New England Patriots beat the New York Giants eight years ago to finish the NFL regular season undefeated? It didn’t matter anymore when the Giants beat them a few weeks later in the Super Bowl, did it?
Why the EPL Wins
Without a playoff, every match in the EPL matters. Fans feel like they have to watch all 38 matches throughout all 9 months of the season because each one holds equal value. Matches in May might have more drama, but matches in August have the same weight in the table. No other sport in the world can claim that.
Maybe it’s why no other league in the world keeps its fans for 9 months per year.
It’s risky not to have a playoff. The EPL knows this. That’s why they have added one other element to its league that is unusual for most American sports fans. In some seasons, though, it provides more drama than the title chase.
We are talking about promotion and relegation – the subject of our next post in this series.