The Case For a Premier League Playoff

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This past weekend, as the Premier League season continued into its second half, on the other side of the Atlantic the NFL closed out its regular season with a scramble to decide the final few playoff spaces. After a 16 game season 12 teams are still alive, heading into do or die knockout that will eventually culminate in the winner being crowned in the Super Bowl in just over a month’s time. It’s a format that for a UK football fan is pretty unfamiliar. We’re used to the biggest prize in English football being awarded at the end of a long season, with knockout football a novelty saved just for cup competitions. But what if we brought the NFL model to the Premier League, and ended the season with a knock-out playoff? It just might make the best league in the world even more exciting.

So how would it work? The NFL has 32 teams and 12 earn a playoff place. At about the same ratio, a Premier League playoff would mean making the top 8 places in the league worthy of a playoff space. And then just like the NFL, the team that had the best record in the ‘regular season’ plays the team that had the 8th best and so on. The knockout tournament eventually leads to a final and one team crowned champions.  Earning a place in Europe adds a layer of complication, and the 5 European places could still go to the top five finishers in the league, to give some reward for excellence over the season. But ending the season with a playoff could be a genuine improvement, and here’s why:

Less meaningless games - One of the biggest issues in how a Premier League season is constructed is that by the last third of the year a lot of the games become almost completely pointless. Any teams that aren't in a relegation battle or competing for one of the top 5 places, have very little to play for. But put 8 playoff spots up for grabs and you reduce the number of pointless games dramatically. More teams have a chance to win it all, and it keeps more teams interested.  It also means one team running away with the title with two months left of the season is impossible, and the drama will always last right to the final game.  Suddenly the whole season gets way more exciting for more fans.

More cup finals - Because as much fun as regular season games are the do or die nature of a knockout game really is a whole other level. There are few things more entertaining in football than knockout FA Cup tie under lights. Adding a playoff gives us even more of these high profile occasions and an even bigger stage for the final games of a league season. In the NFL, playoff games are prime time entertainment.  Bringing the same to the Premier League should mean bigger audiences, and that is good news for everyone involved with the sport.

Proving it under pressure – Every time the England team have their customary collapse at a major tournament, one of the reasons that is always cited is the lack of ability to perform under pressure. How better to give Premier League players experience in these high pressure situations than by making knock out football essential to winning a title. If you could never win a title without having to go through three knockout games, it would make you get better at tournament football in a hurry.  

More winners - We're a bit spoilt by the fact that last season Leicester pulled off what used to be called impossible when they won the title. But before that, it was a common understanding that in reality only a handful of teams ever get a chance to win the league. This season it’s again the big boys that will fight over the title. But put eight teams in a knockout tournament to decide the winners, and there will be surprises. Making a team earn a title on any given day gives more teams a chance to bring home a title, and that only helps make the Premier League a more exciting and unpredictable league.

There’s people who’ll say don’t mess with a winning formula, but where’s the fun in that. Adding a Premier League playoff could make the league more fun, more popular and more competitive, so let’s give it a go!

James Fenn

Hill & Knowlton Strategies Search