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Why the Play-offs Don't Work


By Ian Todd
June 25 2015

I wrote that the play-offs do work.  But only in achieving one very specific goal.  Now I'd like to say why they don't work, whilst at the same time trying to be fair.

I wrote a piece that provoked some debate.  It was about how the play-offs work, but only if you consider them as a method to stop the side that tops the league from being automatically promoted and to give other sides a second go at things.  Now, I’m fairly negative about the play-offs as the means to decide promotion but is there anything to be said in favour of them?

I’m not going to rehash the arguments put forward in the earlier piece.  In essence I don’t think there is any real evidence that the play-offs do any of the things that are claimed for them other than decide which team is promoted.  The question then is, is there anything intrinsically right or wrong about promoting the team that comes top, or promoting the team that wins the play-off?  And that’s a philosophical argument.  There is no particular reason to select one method over another if your sole object is to promote one team.  So, for example a team could be promoted by drawing lots, or the top four sides could then enter a Monopoly tournament and the club which wins that gets promoted.  If you don’t care about anything other than promoting a team then any method is as good as any other.  Playing rugby and competing on the field is utterly irrelevant as a way of deciding promotion, if simply deciding promotion is all you are interested in.  Now, the vast majority of rugby supporters (indeed, the vast majority of those with even a passing interest in rugby or sport generally) would be outraged if an entire league season was played but promotion was then decided by the club captains playing noughts-and-crosses with any tied games decided by flipping a coin.  And then the next season deciding that we didn’t need the noughts-and-crosses round and just tossed a coin to see who got promoted.  That’s patently absurd, but it would be entirely legitimate as a way of deciding promotion if that was all you wanted to do.

What that means, then, is that most observers would instinctively believe promotion ought not to be decided in some arbitrary or chance way but by one that was related to performance in the actual sport.  And that conclusion means that we are taking into account ideas about sporting integrity and natural justice.  It also implies that other concepts can be linked with the idea of promotion.  Proponents of the play-offs claim that the play-offs deliver other benefits than simply deciding promotion.  I think the evidence is shaky at best and that the failure to provide these benefits serves to undermine the play-offs as a way of deciding promotion.  After all, if they are supposed to do something and they don’t do it then that does indicate that at least part of their rationale is flawed.  Ideas about greater involvement, extra interest and toughening sides for the Premiership have been linked with the play-offs but are flawed and I think that means the play-offs are flawed.  But does that mean they are fatally flawed?  Not necessarily.  However, if we are looking at ideas of integrity and justice, and accept that promotion can be linked with other concepts then I think they look distinctly weak when contrasted with simply promoting the side the tops the league.  We have already dismissed the idea that promotion should be decided on an arbitrary or random basis and yet the play-offs by introducing a short-term knock-out element increase the chances of random events or arbitrary decisions having an influence.  Indeed many people have referred to the play-offs as a lottery.  In fairness, that is clearly not true, but the fact that the term is so frequently used does indicate a popular perception that there is a strong element of chance in the process.

If we allow promotion to be linked with other ideas then the one I’d like to link it to is one that play-off partisans have also used: that it selects a side best suited to life in the Premiership.  I think this a vital concept.  The evidence that the play-offs deliver a side capable of competing in the Premiership is very weak.  What they have done in the majority of cases is promote the side that did not win the league, on two occasions that side has immediately been relegated.  One of the sides was relegated after staying up for a while (but always being in the relegation zone) and one other has stayed up so far, but has always been in the relegation zone.  Just one has made a successful transition in the short-term.  Promotion by finishing top is far from flawless, as Rotherham proved, but clubs promoted by that method have had more success than those promoted via the play-offs.  If we want to select a side capable of competing in a league it makes sense to promote a side that has shown itself best able to compete in a league by winning one.  As an analogy, if you wanted to recruit a Norwegian speaking customer service agent you would probably not select a Japanese speaking candidate no matter how well qualified they were in all other respects or had won a rock, paper, scissors game with the Norwegian speaker.

It is interesting that in a recent interview in The Rugby Paper the former coach of London Welsh, Justin Burnell said “We got promoted but were never going to be able to maintain a fight because, one, we didn't have the financial support and, two, we didn't have the training facilities or infrastructure to underpin what we'd achieved.”.  In other words, a club that lacked the support mechanisms necessary to even compete in the Premiership was promoted via the play-off system.  I’m not arguing that factors like this necessarily need to be formally part of the criteria for promotion, but I would argue that a club which possesses the better finances and infrastructure is more likely to come top of the league.  If we regard the league as a system for selecting a team that performs most consistently at a higher level then, by definition, the team that tops the league is the ‘best’ side.  Now that might come down to the last game of the season if two clubs are closely matched over the course of the season but I think that situation possesses greater integrity and is more just than having a short series of knock-out games.  To use Bristol as an example, and of course that’s just sour grapes, how many neutral observers thought it was right that the team that finished fourth in the league got promoted because the league ‘winners’ got knocked out in the semis by playing badly in just fifteen minutes of one single game despite finishing 14 points clear of the team that eventually got promoted?  The answer is: not many.  That season three sides were ‘better’ than the one that eventually got promoted.  It is really hard to see how the play-offs delivered anything close to a just and fair result.  They certainly didn’t help the promoted club which, another promotion and immediate relegation under its belt, and just ten weeks before the new season can’t decide where it will be playing.

I believe that a team that tops the league should be promoted because it has demonstrated over the course of the entire season that it is the best side in that league.  The reason this is important is because promotion is not simply a process of moving a side from one league to another but should be about selecting the best side according to principles of sporting integrity and natural justice.  And the ‘best’ side is the one that performs closest to the best of its ability consistently over an extended period.  The play-offs do not necessarily promote the best side because there is no necessity to perform consistently at the highest possible level.  A system in which the league winner is promoted is fairer and is set up to select a side that has demonstrated its ability to compete over the course of an entire season and it is this quality that is important in surviving in a higher league, not the ability to raise the game for one or two encounters.

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Why the Play-offs Don't Work
bristolrugby.net (IP Logged)
25/06/2015 11:52
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Edited 1 time(s). Last edit at 2015:08:22:11:23:02 by SenorJuan.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Cidered Abroad (IP Logged)
25/06/2015 23:55
I completely agree that plkay offs are a farce and should be ended immediately.
I do wonder if the increased attendance's of the first season at Ashton Gate will continue for the League matches this coming season or will many just wait until the pray offs!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
26/06/2015 20:40
This again, haven't we been around this once already.

I don't think you've presented objective arguments in favour and then against, what I think you have done is presented the same argument against the play offs titled differently.

You are right to some degree in that a play off system is likely to cause more variation in results, you can see this by looking at FA Cup winners vs Premiership winners as you see more variation. Whether one method is less fair than another of selecting winners is a philosophical point to a large degree, each has their merits. Over the longer term, let's say for arguments sake 4 attempts at the play offs, if you're good enough then you will be promoted. Especially when you consider that the two legged nature will serve to reduce the variation.

The argument that sides promoted via the play offs have done discernibly worse is than those promoted via a straight league is very flawed. The two sides promoted that have done well post promotion from the straight league are both long standing and established Premiership level clubs. Only one new entrant in recent history has gone on to really establish themselves via either method, and that is Exeter, who were promoted via the play offs...

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Gray_Lensman (IP Logged)
26/06/2015 21:11
The fact that the clubs were, in your opinion, long standing and well established clubs is completely by the by. By definition they weren't Premiership clubs because they were relegated. The fact that they bounced straight back is because they were promoted as league winners. Who's to say what might have happened had they had to face a play-off? Perhaps they would have won the league by a mile and then lost to Bedford, as Worcester could so very easily have done in 2011. Don't forget that Saracens and Northampton were not in the top tier when it started. Sale were relegated in '88 and didn't make it back till '93. Just because you think a side is well established doesn't make it so.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
26/06/2015 21:33
Which GL frankly is a bit of denial of the facts. There is little comparison to make between the prospects of Saints or Quins vs. those of Welsh. Both had abject seasons and were deservedly relegated, but to suggest their reestablishment in the top tier is somehow linked to the method of promotion is not credible.

The reasons why new entrants to the Premiership have not done well with the notable exception of Exeter are not related to the method of promotion. I'm afraid this is wishful thinking from Bristol fans looking for a reason to decry the play offs, rather like suggesting the play offs contain a strong element of chance, when really we all know over 8 legs of 4 play offs it can't all be chance right.

Personally I think more focus should be on why the gap is so hard to bridge and the apparent intent of some at the top table to ring fence themselves away with the majority of the cash.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Gray_Lensman (IP Logged)
27/06/2015 08:30
There you go, just because a Bristol supporter doesn't think the play-offs are the right way to decide promotion it is because they are a Bristol supporter guilty of 'wishful thinking'. It can't possibly be because of a principled objection to the play-offs could it.

Just became you say that Saints and 'Quins reestablishment was nothing to do with the method of promotion doesn't make it so. I might argue, rather than simply assert, that because they knew they had to win the league to be promoted they were able to build, recruit and establish a squad that was capable of performing consistently over the course of the season and that would outperform any of the rivals over a period of time rather than in a knock-out format. And that building a squad like that stood them in good stead when back in the Premiership.

And just because there have been several play-offs doesn't mean that chance is eliminated. The play-offs from season to season aren't linked so chance is still operative in each series. You toss a coin 10 times and it comes up heads each time. What are the chances that it'll be heads the next time you flip it?

Look at a league as a poorly designed experiment to discover which is the strongest side. If there were just two games, say Pirates v Bristol and Jersey v Worcester then the conclusion would be that Pirates and Jersey were stronger than Bristol and Worcester. But instead we run a longer series of games against several other sides and at the end of it we have a set of results in which extraneous factors are to an extent controlled for and one side emerges as the 'best'. So if the results of two games isn't a good way to decide which are the best sides what makes it a good idea, having run the extended experiment to then run another one which we already know will throw up results that are disproportionately affected by other factors? The answer is that it doesn't.

I have no argument with your last paragraph at all. The structural faults in professional rugby union are many and varied. But that is no reason to increase them by having a deeply stupid way of determining promotion.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
27/06/2015 13:10
I can see an argument in principle that a league is fairer as its decided over many more games and therefore subject to less variation. I don't think anyone would dispute that a league will produce more consistent results over a longer period.

This doesn't necessarily make play offs or knock competitions in themselves deeply stupid. Many very high level competitions are run on a knock out basis like the World Cup (rugby and football), the champions league, super 14 and I could go on. Nobody describes the outcome of the method used in these competitions as deeply stupid or questions the legitimacy of the competition.

As for the operation of chance, even if it were the simple toss of a coin the chance of four consecutive heads is 1 in 16, so while I'd argue chance doesn't really play a big part in the play offs, this is especially so over a longer series. Which is also incidentally why Brazil and Germany have won many more world cups than England have. It's not that they are lucky, they are simply better.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Gray_Lensman (IP Logged)
27/06/2015 14:02
I don't think anyone is arguing that knock-out or cup competitions are, in themselves stupid. It is using them to decide a single promotion place into another league after having a league competition. Now that is stupid.

The number of times heads came up before, be it one, ten or a hundred the chances of the next flip being heads is exactly the same as it was when we started which was 50:50. And I don't think anyone is arguing performance in the play-offs is purely down to chance. But it is fair to say that factors that are evened out in the league exert disproportionate effects in one off games. Do you really think a 'chance' event like the injury to Gavin Henson did not have an effect on the outcome of the play-offs? And yet we had the Championship Player of the Season out injured for several games during the league and we were able to compensate.

Just read what Dean Ryan has to say in The Rugby Paper:

Quote:
Is the Championship play-off system rotten?

Promotion and relegation only works if itís possible to be successful within it.

Fundamentally, I believe in it but youíre only paying lip service to it when youíre not testing the integrity of the league and people are just going up and down, so something has to change.

Last year a London Welsh team took advantage of the system, had one yearís money, bought a load of players nobody else wanted and came back out. What does that do for anybody?

Promotion and relegation doesnít work under its current format: itís impossible not knowing what youíre doing until the end of May; itís impossible to recruit on a dream; itís impossible to recruit people who nobody else wants and expect to be credible. Thereís no integrity, so it has to change.
My emphasis.

So Worcester's DoR believes the play-offs undermine the integrity of the league competition and have effects on recruitment and development.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
elegia (IP Logged)
29/06/2015 13:14
Quote:
neiljk
I can see an argument in principle that a league is fairer as its decided over many more games and therefore subject to less variation. I don't think anyone would dispute that a league will produce more consistent results over a longer period.
This doesn't necessarily make play offs or knock competitions in themselves deeply stupid. Many very high level competitions are run on a knock out basis like the World Cup (rugby and football), the champions league, super 14 and I could go on. Nobody describes the outcome of the method used in these competitions as deeply stupid or questions the legitimacy of the competition.


i'm going to reply with exactly the same point as i did in the other thread, as it seems you are wont to do in this one



imagine how long the world cup would take if it was a league competition, or how many fewer clubs would be involved

having it as a cup with knock outs means that the best team doesn't win as often though - how did england get to the final in 2007 for example?

also, wouldn't it be called the world league then?
bit of a clue in the name methinks

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Music/Pix/pictures/2011/7/13/1310579502636/New-Order-left-to-right-G-007.jpg

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
29/06/2015 20:33
This feels like a bit of a circular argument, and the two threads look quite similar probably because they aren't arguing opposite sides of the argument. Thought they are titled differently they are in effect arguing the same thing.

I get the point about the World Cup and if it was a league it would be too long. The part I'm struggling with is why in this particular instance a knock out system is considered deeply stupid (and the winners considered in some quarters illegitmate), whereas in other competitions where knock out decides, there is no such debate?

Leagues and cups, or mixtures of the two, are just ways of deciding who is the winner. They both have their inherent advantages and disadvantages (there were aspects of the Six Nations and Premiership league stages that looked quite flawed this season for example). Neither for me is intrinsically better.

For me the main argument is really one of whether you in principle consider a league or a cup for promotion fair or not which is really just a matter of personal choice. The rest of the arguments in many cases for both sides are just window dressing.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Gray_Lensman (IP Logged)
30/06/2015 08:04
But that is exactly what the article says!! That the way of promoting a side is completely irrelevant just so long as all you want to do is promote a side and nothing else. The method you choose in that case is based on whichever one you happen to like.

It is only when you want promotion to achieve other things that the actual method becomes important. As both the article and Dean Ryan say, having the play-offs undermine the integrity of having a league competition and put in place practical difficulties for the promoted side.

And I think the reason why the two pieces end up being very similar is that it is very difficult to think of actual positive reasons why the play-off method is better than just promoting the league winner. At the end of the day it's not really a reasoned choice it's because one happens to prefer one to the other. When you look for reasons there really aren't that many in favour of play-offs when you start by having a league competition first. It's the starting conditions that make all the difference. If it was a knock-out competition from start to finish there wouldn't be much of a problem. Do you hear Bristol supporters complaining about not winning the B&I Cup, even though they lost just one game out of three to Doncaster in the season? No you don't, because it was a cup competition.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
elegia (IP Logged)
30/06/2015 13:16
Quote:
neiljk

I get the point about the World Cup and if it was a league it would be too long. The part I'm struggling with is why in this particular instance a knock out system is considered deeply stupid (and the winners considered in some quarters illegitmate), whereas in other competitions where knock out decides, there is no such debate?


because history
& that's the way it is done in every other sporting competition in the world

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Music/Pix/pictures/2011/7/13/1310579502636/New-Order-left-to-right-G-007.jpg

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
30/06/2015 20:09
In every other sporting competition in the world? I don't think so there are lots of competitions that are straight knock or leagues followed by knock out?

As for history, leagues are a relative recent innovation in rugby, I take it there is therefore no appetite for ring fencing given the same principle of history would apply?

I do agree though GL it is a matter of reasoning and which choice you prefer. I still think the fixation on the system is the wrong focus, the real problem is the premiership floating itself away from the rest with all the cash....

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
elegia (IP Logged)
01/07/2015 13:02
against ring fencing, always have been
agaisnt play offs, ditto

i'd love to know these other competitions where promotion is decided the way you say. tell me one. that will suffice.

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Music/Pix/pictures/2011/7/13/1310579502636/New-Order-left-to-right-G-007.jpg

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Peter_B (IP Logged)
01/07/2015 13:23
The World Cups whether football or rugby don't compare because not all of the teams play each other that's why you don't declare the winner to be the team with the best record at the end of the group stages. In the case of the Championship all the teams have played each other twice, once at home and once away. There is no need for a playoff after 22 games each.

Peter

C'mon you Bristol Boys!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
01/07/2015 22:00
Ok, so we're tightening the criteria Elegia. I haven't conducted an extensive hunt, but there don't seem to be many 12 teams leagues in top flight anything with single team promotion. That said, I'm not sure why promotion in itself would be different or more important that say winning the Premiership, Super 15, Top 14 or the Rabo (which seems to cover pretty much the whole scope of top flight club rugby), all of which are decided by a league, then a play off.

Football has some comparisons, but in general leagues are larger and promotion is on the basis of 3 up and 3 down.

I actually think a better situation might be a 14 team Premiership with 2 up and 2 down, with the first spot on the league and the second spot on a play off. That would seem to represent a better balance, not sure that the refuseniks in the Premiership would accede to that though!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Peter_B (IP Logged)
01/07/2015 22:35
The World Cups whether football or rugby don't compare because not all of the teams play each other that's why you don't declare the winner to be the team with the best record at the end of the group stages. In the case of the Championship all the teams have played each other twice, once at home and once away. There is no need for a playoff after 22 games each.

Peter

C'mon you Bristol Boys!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
elegia (IP Logged)
02/07/2015 13:57
tightening the criteria?
this whole thing is about how you decide promotion!

not winning a competition/ league there is no promotion from, but promotion from a league, more specifically this one (the only one i can think of where a pray off decides it)

so come on, tell me one single example, league can be any size you like

http://static.guim.co.uk/sys-images/Music/Pix/pictures/2011/7/13/1310579502636/New-Order-left-to-right-G-007.jpg

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
02/07/2015 20:30
You are both narrowing and broadening the criteria at the same time Elegia. I doubt there are too many examples of single team promotion from a league of 12 into a top tier.

However, most of the top tier club rugby competitions are decided by play off in a distinctly similar format and I can't really see why a promotion should be more important than say winning the Premiership or the Top 14.

Where more teams are promoted in larger leagues both systems are usually operated alongside one another. No eyebrows are raised.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Peter_B (IP Logged)
02/07/2015 21:14
The World Cups whether football or rugby don't compare because not all of the teams play each other that's why you don't declare the winner to be the team with the best record at the end of the group stages. In the case of the Championship all the teams have played each other twice, once at home and once away. There is no need for a playoff after 22 games each.
The number of teams is irrelevant. In fact the fewer the number of teams the less a playoff is necessary.

Peter

C'mon you Bristol Boys!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
02/07/2015 21:42
But the prem, the top 14 and the Rabo surely compare directly?

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Peter_B (IP Logged)
02/07/2015 23:38
The World Cups whether football or rugby don't compare because not all of the teams play each other that's why you don't declare the winner to be the team with the best record at the end of the group stages. In the case of the Championship all the teams have played each other twice, once at home and once away. There is no need for a playoff after 22 games each.
The number of teams is irrelevant. In fact the fewer the number of teams the less a playoff is necessary.

Peter

Peter

C'mon you Bristol Boys!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Gray_Lensman (IP Logged)
03/07/2015 07:38
Clearly none of those are directly comparable because in none of those is the play off to decide a single promotion spot to another league.

It might be better to compare the method by which promotion into the T14 is decided: two promotion spots from Pro D2, the top side automatically promoted and the second spot decide by a play-off between the next four sides. Now that gives us a league competition with integrity and a play-off which delivers the supposed extra interest and involvement.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
05/07/2015 09:39
I actually suggested that a number of posts back GL. A 14 team premiership with two promotion spots would be better.

I don't really get why winning a league and getting promoted is in principle more important or fundamentally different from winning the top league where there is by definition no promotion.

I'm also not sure why a play off for a second promotion spot is less stupid than a play off for the first one. Surely it fails the same tests as you've applied consistently against the play offs? For me the reason it works better is you get a balance of two approaches.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Gray_Lensman (IP Logged)
05/07/2015 11:01
I think there was a clue in the word 'supposed' about my attitude to using play-offs for deciding promotion in any way, but if people really want them then for a second promotion spot seems the best of a bad job.

As for why promotion is crucial, I think the various articles on here say it well, because if you want to promote a team from one league into another league then promotion on the basis of league performance seems like a good idea. If the play-off is some money-spinning device or claimed to compensate for player absences then, as in the various top tiers, then that's up to them, but actually having a cup competition run parallel to a league one seems more logical. Use the football Premiership as an example: straight league competition with a couple of cup competitions run alongside. Automatic promotion for the winners of lower leagues plus play-offs.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Peter_B (IP Logged)
05/07/2015 12:16
Neiljk these are not ideas you have had yourself. You are still saying almost nothing at great length.

Peter

C'mon you Bristol Boys!

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
neiljk (IP Logged)
05/07/2015 12:34
Thanks Peter, I note you posted the same thing at least 3 times....pot....kettle

GL, I just think they are two different ways that's all. My issue with both articles is that they are very one eyed, seeing only a league as the "right"way. I think that is a partial view, and driven by the fact Bristol, for whatever reason, don't seem to be able to get past a play off.

It's not a dig at anyone, I'm just failing to see the logic of only seeing one side of an argument.

I'm going to check out now. Enjoy your season.

 
Re: Why the Play-offs Don't Work
Peter_B (IP Logged)
07/07/2015 10:55
The World Cups whether football or rugby don't compare because not all of the teams play each other that's why you don't declare the winner to be the team with the best record at the end of the group stages. In the case of the Championship all the teams have played each other twice, once at home and once away. There is no need for a playoff after 22 games each.
The number of teams is irrelevant. In fact the fewer the number of teams the less a playoff is necessary.

Peter

C'mon you Bristol Boys!

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