When I was a little kid, there was no phrase I despised more than, “Last goal wins!”
“Are you kidding me? We’re winning 8-1. How the hell does 2 beat 8? You’re telling me I kicked that kid in the shin to stop him from scoring for nothing???” In the interest of time, I’ll leave it at that, but my speech generally went on until either my team won (ball don’t lie) or the other team won, in which case I never got over it.
The thing I couldn’t wrap my brain around was how a system in which only the last goal mattered could possibly be fair. All kids are obsessed with fairness. Eventually, we wise up and realize not everything is fair. Some of this is grim acceptance that we live in an imperfect world. But we also realize that fairness is not the be all end all. Other things matter too.
“Last Goal Wins!” is obviously not as fair as allowing a game to end in a blowout. So why would the sage 16-year-old camp counselor throw the score out the window and award victory to whichever team scored last? Because it didn’t matter how badly one team had dominated up to that point. It was a blank slate – anybody’s game. How much more exciting was it to watch a bunch of hypercompetitive kids scramble to score that last all important goal than to watch 8-year-old me taunt my best friend until he threw dirt at me?
You might think we would never allow this type of thing to happen at the professional level. It’s one thing to tell a bunch of infants that you’re changing the rules at the last second; it’s another thing when the players are grown men significantly larger than the average human being, and when billions of dollars and the hopes of millions of fans are at stake. But we still do it. We just make it less obvious.
Allow me to explain. From 1903 to 1969, the team with the best record in the American League and the team with the best record in the National League faced off in the World Series. That was it. One round. In 1969, four teams were allowed into the playoffs. In 1994, the playoffs were expanded yet again to include eight teams. And just two years ago, two more teams were added into the mix.
To be fair, the larger playoff field was accompanied by a general expansion in teams from 16 originally to the 30 we have today. Still, that’s 14 more teams and 10 additional playoff spots – the difference between a 12.5% chance of making the playoffs and a 40% chance.
All four major sports have this system. 12 out of 32 teams make the playoffs in the NFL. And in the NBA and NHL, an absurd 16 teams out of 30 make the playoffs — more than half. On top of that, we split our sports into divisions and conferences, so it isn’t even the teams with the best records making the playoffs. That’s how you get head scratching situations like the 22-28 Charlotte Bobcats currently holding a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. The Bobcats have the 19th best record of 30 teams in the NBA. If the season were to end today, they would play the 38-10 Indiana Pacers in a seven game series. First team to four wins advances. Still think “Last goal wins!” is just for little kids?
Why do we accept this? Imagine the Thunder are blowing out the Heat in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the NBA finals. The crowd in Oklahoma City is going wild, knowing they are about win their first NBA title. All of a sudden, Adam Silver steps onto the court, and asks the crowd to quiet down. “Excuse me, if I can just have your attention for a moment. Whichever team scores more in the last two minutes wins. That’s all.” What would happen? Best-case scenario, you’re looking at a routine soccer riot.
Now imagine this. The NBA declares that the team with the best regular season record automatically wins the championship*. Immediately every team in the Eastern Conference besides the Heat and Pacers would have nothing to play for. I would have to accept the fact that my Wizards had zero chance of achieving anything for the next decade. How much longer would I keep watching?
*Wait, they actually do this in Europe? No wonder their fans are always hitting each other with chairs. I’d be mad too.
So on one side of the spectrum we have “Last Goal Wins!” and on the other we have European soccer. Obviously, neither is a good option. Somewhere in the middle, balancing excitement and fairness, we have our current playoff systems.
Could they be improved? Maybe. But an effort to make the system fairer – like eliminating conferences in the NBA – would be less exciting. And a move to be more exciting – like the NFL expanding the playoff field by two teams – would be less fair. I don’t think any proposal would be “better” or “worse” – just different. It all comes down to what you value.