Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

Designing a League: Getting the Right Format

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?

League Format

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).

Conference Format

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.

My preference

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?

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 36

Premier League Ramble – 2017/18 Round 36

We are now just 2 and a half rounds away from the end of the season and for some teams there is still plenty to play for. West Brom’s late revival has probably come too late to save them from the drop, but their 0-1 win at Newcastle leaves them currently just 3 points behind Swansea in 17th, though the Swans do have a game in hand. Burnley’s point against Brighton has secured them a place in the top 7 barring a 15-goal swing in goal difference, while Crystal Palace’s 5-0 victory at Leicester (their largest win in the Premier League) sees them jump up to 11th and be all-but certain of safety. Meanwhile, Liverpool’s hold on 3rd place is under threat as their goalless draw with Stoke means Spurs will leapfrog them if they win their game in hand.


Right guy, wrong time?

Looking at their results in recent weeks, I can’t help but wonder what might have been for West Brom. Following Alan Pardew’s introduction, the Baggies won just 1 league game out of 18 and took just 8 out of a possible 54. Yet under caretaker boss Darren Moore they are unbeaten in the league and have picked up 8 points from a possible 12, including wins against Manchester United and Newcastle. West Brom have earned 28.6% of their points under Moore despite him having only been in charge for 11.1% of their matches this season! It’s not even just the results, but the quality of teams played as he has taken 7 points off of Mourinho, Klopp and Benitez – 3 of the best managers in the league!

Moore has got these players working for him in a way they never did under Pardew. The Barcelona incident was a clear indication that he did not have the support of the dressing room that he need to keep the club up, but Moore appears to have their support and also got results by – as suggested by Chris Brunt – going back to the West Brom way. Whatever he is doing, it is working! A couple of weeks back, the Baggies looked certain to be down. I still find survival unlikely, but under Moore there is at least a belief that the great escape could be possible.

At the moment, he is merely the caretaker manager, but I hope he has shown enough over the last couple of weeks to convince the board to make him permanent. Dropping down to the Championship could see them lose a number of top players, but a manager like Moore may convince some of them to stay and also give them the confidence to push for an immediate return to the top flight.


Handball?

Burnley just can’t buy a penalty in the league this season! They had 2 appeals turned down in their draw against Brighton, the first when the ball ricocheted off the post and onto Shane Duffy during a goalmouth scramble, the second when a knock-down at a set piece struck Bruno’s outstretched arm from close range. Away from Turf Moor, Erik Pieters survived a late handball shout at Anfield as Georginio Wijnaldum’s cross hit him on the arm in the 87th minute.

So what actually constitutes a handball? The FA website’s rules and regulations section states:

HANDLING THE BALL

Handling the ball involves a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with the hand or arm. The following must be considered:

  • The movement of the hand towards the ball (not the ball towards the hand)
  • The distance between the opponent and the ball (unexpected ball)
  • The position of the hand does not necessarily mean that there is an offence
  • Touching the ball with an object held in the hand (clothing, shinguard, etc.) is an offence
  • Hitting the ball with a thrown object (boot, shinguard, etc.) is an offence
  • The goalkeeper has the same restrictions on handling the ball as any other player outside the penalty area. Inside their penalty area, the goalkeeper cannot be guilty of a handling offence incurring a direct free kick or any related sanction but can be guilty of handling offences that incur an indirect free kick.

That leaves a lot of discretion for referees, and anytime there is too much discretion involved, mistakes can be made far too easily. We the viewing public get the benefit of multiple replays whereas the officials get one chance and will not necessarily have the best angle. This may be a controversial suggestion, but I wonder if it would benefit the FA to trial a zero-tolerance approach to handling the ball in a similar way to touching the ball with the foot in hockey. It may lead to a number of penalties initially as defenders get used to the new rules, but in the long run the clear stance on what constitutes a handball could be a real benefit.


Sliding down and out?

Things are not looking good for Huddersfield right now. They started the season so well but in recent months they have been sliding down the table and now find themselves just 3 points above the drop zone. They have just 3 matches left in the league this season but they are away to Manchester City, away to Chelsea and at home to Arsenal… not really the way you want to end the season when fighting for survival. It gets even worse when you realise that they are yet to win a match where they have gone behind!

Southampton looked much improved in their 2-1 win over Bournemouth and have a slightly easier set of remaining games (away at Everton, away at Swansea and at home to Manchester City). None of these are easy matches, but I still see more potential for Southampton to build some momentum off this week’s win and pick up the points to leapfrog Huddersfield by virtue of their better goal difference.

Right now I can see Huddersfield joining Stoke and West Brom in the Championship next season.


Round 37 predictions and the missing matches:

I’m going to be away this weekend so Round 37’s write-up will join with my thoughts on the games in hand. At that point we will have just one round left in the Premier League this season.

 

Brighton & Hove Albion v Manchester United – United win

Stoke City v Crystal Palace – Palace win

AFC Bournemouth v Swansea City – Swansea win

Leicester City v West Ham – Leicester win

Watford v Newcastle United – Newcastle win

West Bromwich Albion v Tottenham Hotspur – Spurs win

Everton v Southampton – Draw

Manchester City v Huddersfield Town – City win

Arsenal v Burnley – Draw

Chelsea v Liverpool – Draw

 

Swansea City v Southampton – Southampton win

Chelsea v Huddersfield Town – Chelsea win

Leicester City v Arsenal – Arsenal win

Manchester City v Brighton & Hove Albion – City win

Tottenham Hotspur v Newcastle United – Spurs win

West Ham v Manchester United – United win

Does relegation need to be kicked into touch?

As happy as I was seeing Gloucester take the full 5 points from their trip to Ashton Gate recently, there was a part of me that was disappointed to see Bristol’s relegation back to the Championship all but guaranteed. I was quite surprised and disappointed when I saw a story quoting their chairman as saying they would “walk promotion” next season if they are relegated. However after thinking about it for a moment, I realised that rather than arrogance this is probably just stating a fact. Last season’s relegated team, London Irish, were unbeaten in the league until a recent loss at Jersey. With Pat Lam as coach and a number of high-profile new signings (including internationals Ian Madigan and Alapati Leiua) and current players committing (Siale Piutau & captain Jack Lam) all on the books for next season it is very likely that Bristol will finish top of the league, thereby benefitting from the playoffs being scrapped as of next season.

This got me thinking if we should have promotion and relegation between the 2 leagues, or if the calls to ring-fence the Premiership are justified. Up to now I have firmly believed that it is right to have promotion and relegation, but I have tried to look at this objectively in order to generate a fair opinion. In doing so, I have realised how little I actually knew of the Championship, so this has been a bit of a learning curve for me too as I have looked into this.

 

Something worth fighting for

My main argument in favour of relegation has always been that it gives the teams at the bottom an incentive to keep fighting until the end of the season, even once it is clear that they will be unable to make the playoffs of qualify for the Champions Cup. Fans pay good money to watch their teams play, if they turned up and saw the team experimenting with new combinations or blooding too many academy players ahead of the next season, then some fans would likely feel short-changed if the team did not get the desired result. By having the fear of being relegated from the league if they are not getting the results, it means that the teams must continue fighting right to the very end to ensure their safety. It makes the league more exiting for fans too when they can be looking at teams throughout the league table still fighting for something important, whether it is a place in the league playoffs, a chance to play against the top teams in Europe or even just survival in the league.

Conversely, the need to fight until the end could have a negative effect. The need to win every game in order for teams to stay up means that it is harder for them to bring up youth players. With Bristol having Gavin Henson and Tusi Pisi on their books this season, I doubt they had any plans for Billy Searle to have played such a big part in their league campaign this year. Likewise Worcester with Jamie Shillcock. A look at the England U20s EPS for this year’s 6 Nations does not throw up many names instantly recognisable from the Premiership. Many of these players, though undoubtedly talented, are playing in the Championship, or feature for their Premiership clubs mainly in the Anglo-Welsh Cup and A-League games, unless there are injuries or international call-ups at their position. Though the quality players are constantly coming through at youth level, they are often then struggling to break into the senior match day squads on a regular basis. There will be the odd freak of nature like Maro Itoje or Zach Mercer who becomes a first team regular at a young age, but for many players there is a period between graduating from their academy and getting regular first team rugby. With the money starting to come into the league, this is only likely to get worse as top international players are signed from other countries with huge wages that force coaches to pick them over the young prospects.

This need to play the top players as often as possible could also be detrimental to their long-term wellbeing. Between the domestic season (regular appearances in the Premiership and European Cup), the 6 Nations and International windows in the summer and autumn, there is not much time for an England International to have a break – and this isn’t even taking to account years where we have a Lions tour or a World Cup! There have been plenty of grumbles from fans at the amount of games internationals in the Pro12 miss, but the lighter schedule for these players must allow them to remain at peak fitness for more matches rather than carrying little knocks over a couple of weeks. The last thing you want is for a match between 2 of the top nations is for half the team to be below par as they are carrying minor injuries or are completely burnt out from a long season. Removing relegation means that teams can manage all their players better, allowing internationals the rest they need while letting the young players gain valuable experience in the first team, a plus for everyone involved.

Money talks

The Greene King IPA Championship is a professional league, but that does not mean that it is necessarily sustainable. London Welsh were liquidated back in December and just a quick search on Google found me a number of stories of other Championship teams struggling financially: Jersey sold their assets in November to ensure they made it through to the end of the season, Richmond’s players are part-time and Bedford have recently been given full relief of business rates by the local council on grounds of financial hardship. Jersey may have just defeated London Irish in back-to-back games, but over the course of a season, it is going to be difficult for teams struggling financially to compete against the money that a team relegated from the Premiership will have, not to mention the quality of players they will bring if they can convince a number of their players to stay with them despite the drop as Bristol have.

In the last 11 seasons, the team relegated from the Premiership have won promotion in the next season 8 times, which also looks set to happen this year barring a playoff collapse from London Irish. The only teams to have not made it back into the Premiership since their last relegation in this time frame are Leeds in 2011 and London Welsh in 2016. With the increase in the Premiership salary cap, the quality of players coming down to the Championship with a relegated team is improving, so it is becoming even easier for a team to make an immediate return following relegation. When it gets to the point that the promotion from the Championship is a given and the only question is who will be relegated, is there any point having promotion?

If another team does manage to beat the odds and win the Championship, is there even any guarantee that they will be able to gain promotion? Rotherham (2002) are so far the only team to have been denied promotion to the Premiership due to their grounds not meeting the league’s minimum standard, however there have been years where Cornish Pirates have been competing in the playoff final knowing that they will not be promoted even if they win convincingly. When London Welsh won the league in 2012, they were only confirmed of their Premiership status in late June following an appeal after their plans to play at the Kassam Stadium were initially deemed unsuitable by the RFU. This delay severely hampered their recruiting, likely contributing towards their immediate return to the Championship. It doesn’t seem fair that a team can win the league but not be promoted if other teams in the league do have that extra incentive. It only seems fair that the RFU either get rid of the minimum requirements (which I wouldn’t be against at all) or ring-fence the league.

Picking the teams

So let’s assume that the RFU does decide to ring-fence the league, it would be very harsh if a team got relegated in the final season and were then stuck in a league where they are clearly of a higher quality. For this reason I think that the Premiership would need expanding. Unless the RFU wanted to introduce bye weeks into the season, they would need to keep the number of teams even, so it would make sense to expand the league from 12 to 14 teams in this circumstance. The important question then becomes which teams are selected. I feel that Bristol’s consistency at reaching the playoffs in the Championship since their last relegation means that they still deserve a spot in an extended Premiership alongside London Irish and the other 11 current Premiership clubs. But who would deserve the last spot?

Yorkshire Carnegie (formerly Leeds) would be the obvious choice to make the step up as the 14th Premiership team. Since their last relegation in 2011, they have never finished lower than 6th and will have finished in the top 4 on 4 of these occasions, including this season where they currently lie second with enough points to guarantee a top 4 finish. They also have a stadium capable of holding just over 21,000 supporters, which is considerably more than most of the other Championship teams. There would also then be the added benefit of having another top flight team based further North, especially as most of the current Premiership teams are found in either London, the South West or the Midlands.

Doncaster Knights were runners-up in last year’s playoff final after finishing second to Bristol, but their stadium’s capacity (5,000) is half the size of the smallest currently in the Premiership. They have also not been as consistent as Carnegie over the same period of time, having been relegated in 2013 and winning an immediate return the following year, but finished 2nd last year and are currently 4th.

Cornish Pirates are hoping to get a new stadium that would allow them to meet the Premiership’s minimum standard, so it would be very harsh to not consider them for the last Premiership place. However, though their finishing positions since 2012 have been more consistent than Doncaster they have not made the top 4 since 2012’s playoff final loss to Bristol and currently find themselves 6th in the league, 4 points behind Doncaster.

 

When I first considered writing this, I really felt that promotion and relegation between the Premiership and Championship was right, but looking into this has really made me rethink my stance on the matter.

If the Championship can be made more financially stable so that teams are able to compete against those being relegated from the Premiership, then I feel there is a place for relegation, so long as whoever the winner is can be promoted regardless of the size of their home ground. However, until the RFU can get the Championship in this position, I feel that it would be unfair on everyone involved for a team to be relegated to a league where their team can easily consider winning the competition with a couple of months to spare, while other teams in the same league struggle to stay afloat financially.

My personal opinion is that the Premiership should be expanded to 14 teams and then ring-fenced, with teams moving up from lower leagues to replace those moved up. If I was the one making the decision, I would pick London Irish and Yorkshire Carnegie to join the 12 current Premiership Clubs. With this ring-fencing, the RFU can make the decision between putting more finances into the Championship or to step it back to a more sustainable semi-pro/amateur competition. This does not have to be the end of the matter, I would be more than happy for the Premiership to reintroduce relegation if the Championship can get to a level where it is can compete with teams dropping down from the top league. As the league season would require more matches, the Anglo-Welsh could possibly be removed, with Premiership teams playing their youth or ‘A’ teams in a revamped British & Irish Cup, allowing them to play against other Premiership ‘A’ teams and Championship-level clubs.

 

What are your thoughts on the subject? Do you agree with promotion and relegation? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge