If you are a regular reader, you may have noticed that I watch a lot of sport (probably more than is healthy) and in some cases – most notably rugby – follow a number of different domestic leagues within a sport. As a result of this, I have come to see that most sports leagues will follow one of 2 formats:
The first is what I would call a League Format, where every team will play home and away against every other team in the league, as seen in the Premier League, Top 14 and the Gallagher Premiership.
The second is what I would call a Conference Format, where the league is split into a number of conferences and teams play a schedule that does not feature matches against every opposition, these league will then have a playoff at the end to determine the champion. Leagues that follow this format would include the Pro14, Super Rugby and the NFL, which takes things even further by splitting its 2 16-team conferences into 4-team divisions.
Now, imagine you were able to create and organise a professional league of your own, what format would you pick?
The big draw of the league format is that it has a balanced schedule. Each team plays everybody else both home and away so – beyond the changes in form through a season – every team is on an even playing field by playing the same fixtures.
While this is great in principle, it does have its drawbacks. It is harder to have a large number of teams in a league of this format as for each team that is added, that is a further 2 matches that must be added to the schedule. Just look at the Premier League, which contains 20 teams and runs from August to May (there will be some international breaks, but there will also be some midweek games to make up for this).
Tying into the long season is the lack of a rest for players as this means that there is very little time between the end of one season and the beginning of the next preseason – something made even worse in rugby by the international Test matches being straight after the European seasons finish. This means that players get very little time to rest and recuperate away from the sport itself, and may lead to more frequent injuries if they are not recovering fully.
This format is also beneficial in a tiered league structure that includes promotion and relegation, as it is very clear from the standings which teams should go up or down as the balanced schedule makes it clear which teams have been strongest and weakest throughout the season.
This format also allows the league organisers to decide if they want any playoffs to determine the overall winner (as in the Gallagher Premiership) or name the team that tops the table as the winner (as in the Premier League).
The big benefit of this format is that as teams don’t have to play home and away against everybody else in the league, which allows for a much larger number of teams but also a shorter season (the NFL has 32 teams play up to a maximum of 20 matches over 22 weeks, 16 matches in 17 weeks if they don’t make the playoffs). This means that there is much more time for players to recover and recuperate between the end of the season and the beginning of the next preseason.
However, this shorter schedule may not be ideal as it will not be balanced. Teams may play home and away against some teams, but there will also be a number of teams that they will not play every season, leading to an unbalanced schedule where one team may play a higher proportion of weaker teams that some of the opponents they are directly competing against in the standings. Just take a moment to look at the Pro14 this season, where Conference B contains Leinster (10 wins, 1 loss at time of writing) but Conference A’s strongest team is Glasgow (8 wins, 3 losses). However, Conference A has 4 teams with more points than Conference B’s 3rd-placed team (Scarlets) and their spread of points (41-16 – 25 points) is less than in Conference B (49-12 – 37 points). Considering every team will have the same number of matches in the regular season, a stronger schedule will immediately put some teams at a disadvantage, so this type of format is not necessarily as fair.
Along with the strength of schedule, the teams that qualify for the playoffs will usually also be decided within each conference, so if we keep with the Pro14 example, Connacht are currently set to miss out on the playoffs as they are 4th in their Conference, despite having 2 points more than Scarlets, who would qualify for the playoffs as 3rd place in their Conference.
For the same reasons, promotion and relegation would be harder in this format as it would be harsh to relegate a team that had a point less if they have had a much harder schedule than the next team, so a playoff would likely be required for this. This also requires playoffs to establish a winner, unless teams were at the end of the season grouped into a combined table, but again this gives a benefit to a team with a weaker schedule.
For me, the balanced schedule is a huge draw and it makes the playing field fair, therefore if I was developing a new league, I would want to run a League Format however to avoid overly long seasons and too many games I would limit the league to probably no more than 10 teams and just increase the number of tiers in the sporting structure, with one or 2 teams being promoted and relegated each year, depending on the size of the league and the quality of the leagues below. I would personally not see the need to include a playoff at the end of the season, however if it was required – I can see the benefits both to the money coming in and the guarantee of when the title will be confirmed – then I would have no more than 4 teams competing in the playoffs, most likely just 3 in a smaller tournament.
So that would be my preference, but what tournament format do you prefer?