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Soup of This Day #245: You’ll See Things In A Different Way

September 5, 2012

JFK at the 1962 MLB All-Star Game
John F. Kennedy throwing out the 1st pitch at the 1962 Major League Baseball (MLB) All-Star Game. Since 2003 this midsummer classic has been used to determine whether the National League (NL) representative or the American League’s (AL) chosen outfit has home field advantage in the World Series – Photo: Cecil W. Stoughton, 1962. Cecil W. Stoughton is not affiliated with Longworth72. Image cropped by Longworth72.

It being September, and with 2 of this blog’s 4 teams winding to the end of their seasons, it’s a good time to review how a champion is created.

And no, this is not a ‘birds and the bees’ type talk I’m giving here – I’m sorry to say that I have no information on which position leads to the birth of a Usain Bolt. My best guess would be ‘The Running Man’.

And yes, that is a real thing. It’s pretty much what it reads like. Don’t Google that at work.

This post is not about that kind of thing though – We’re not going back that far in the process. Instead it’s about the road a team must travel down in a season in order to be crowned the champion at the end of it. Because this blog has 4 teams that it focuses its steely-eyed gaze on, I figured I’d run down the situation for each of them, paying particular attention to Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Australian Football League (AFL) as they are the 2 leagues approaching the endgame right now.

I will however start with the English Premier League (EPL). This top flight of English football is the home of Liverpool FC.

Even if they are metaphorically living in their parent’s basement these days.

The EPL is, on the surface at least, the most democratic of the 4 comps we’re reviewing today. This is because points are awarded for wins and draws and the team with the most points at season’s end is awarded the Premiership trophy. It’s simple really and highly effective at picking a truly deserving winner – You can’t rely on being lucky for 1 or 2 games – The champion has to be consistently good across all 38 games of the campaign. Yeah, you can drop some points here or there but mostly you have to win, week in and week out, to be competitive.

Which, as I said, seems like a democratic approach. The reality though is that it is far from that, mostly because there is no salary cap or a centrally allocated stream of revenue that is equitable. Rich clubs can afford better players and crucially, more of them. This gives squad depth, meaning that as the long, gruelling season unfolds, a top team has the ability to respond to injuries and poor runs of individual form. A big money club like Manchester City, last season’s top dogs, can afford to lose an elite international standard midfielder for instance because they have another 2 players of comparable value waiting in the wings.

Liverpool FC by contrast don’t have that ability any more. Sure they can put a best 11 on the park that can give City a run for their money on a given day but can they do that across a whole season?

No.

The AFL is a study in contrast. This is a league that is insular – It is only played at the elite level in Australia so there is no great talent market beyond our shores. Nor is there a talent drain – There just isn’t anywhere else to go and play. Thus there is only 1 market for players and it is a tightly ordered and controlled 1. There is a salary cap, a draft structured to lift weaker clubs up to the mark of competitiveness and there is an egalitarian sharing of resources – For the most part.

Against this borderline socialist backdrop 18 teams play 22 games of regular season footy each year – They get 4 points for a win and 2 for a draw, although the latter are rare – There has just been 1 draw in 2012 and that was the penultimate game of the regular season. The top 8 at the end of the 23 rounds (1 round is confusingly split into 2) find their way into the finals.

The AFL finals system rewards a team for finishing higher up the ladder by, 1st of all, dividing the top 8 into a top 4 and a bottom 4 for Week 1 of the finals. In the lower ranked grouping, teams pair off in elimination matches, 5th vs 8th and 6th vs 7th. While in the higher ranked group, teams pair off in non-elimination matches, 1st vs 4th and 2nd vs 3rd. In all 4 games the higher ranked side gets home-field advantage.

By Week 2 there are 6 teams left and we now move on to a phase whereby the losing top-4 sides from Week 1 play off in an elimination battle with the winning bottom-4 sides from Week 1. The 2 resultant winning teams then progress to Week 3 where they match up with the Week 1 winners of the top-4. From those 2 preliminary finals we get the 2 sides that make the Grand Final and the side triumphant in that finale takes home the plaudits while being showered with ticker-tape and free beer.

Pause and breathe deeply.

This year the race is unusually wide-open. Just 3 wins separate 1st from 8th – exactly the same margin that separates 8th from 10th. Fremantle finished in 7th, a strategically inopportune place to find themselves as it means no home final for them. Had they finished 8th they would have played local rivals West Coast (5th) in Week 1 – Since the 2 share a home ground it would have been a defacto home game for the Dockers and Freo would have I think fancied their chances in that nicely thank you.

Instead they head to the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG) to take on last year’s Premiers Geelong. Credit to the Dockers though – They chose not to play the percentage game that might have wrought a better outcome and instead are focusing on just being in the finals. Given that the lads won a club-record 6 games away from their Subiaco home in 2012, including 1 at the MCG, you’d have to think their spirit has some steel backing it up.

And win, lose or draw, at least they’ll have played in the post-season in 2012.

Unlike the Boston Red Sox.

Who to be fair have a few more games to get through. The MLB way of doing things is to get teams to play 162 regular season games each. At the end of that marathon you take the top team from each of the 6 divisions, 3 per league. These 6 qualify for the play-offs. They are joined by 2 wild card teams, which prior to this year were the best placed runner-up per league. This meant that the National League (NL) and the American League (AL) could each have 4 teams, making for a simple flow through to the pennant.

This year it’s a little more complicated but only initially. Instead of 1 wild card team per league there is now 2. These 2 then play off in a single game decider to sort out who goes through to the post-season proper, where they play the best-placed of the 3 Division winners (Even if they are from the same Division as the wild card team). That confrontation, along with that between the 2nd and 3rd best-placed Division winners is a best-of-5 series. The 2 winners of that go through to the League Championship Series (LCS), played as a best-of-7. The 2 League Champions then meet in the World Series, also a best-of-7.

The expansion to 2 wild card teams and a 1-game playoff strikes me as harsh – You play 162 games and it comes down to 1 game as to whether you continue. A ridiculous scenario is that a team might finish 2nd in a strong Division, netting say 95 wins, 1 off the Division lead. The next best side that did not win a Division might have got 84 wins, 8 off the lead in their Division. There is an obvious gulf between the 2 wild card teams – That disparity though is negated by it being a 1 game shot for both teams – Anything can happen in 1 game and it would seem unfair that the 95-win outfit should have 1 bad night and get eliminated by the clearly inferior 84-win team.

But that’s life – It ain’t always fair. Any system that uses a playoff has this risk and so it is for our 4th and final team, Perth Glory Women.

The ladies play in the W-League – Australian football’s premier national competition for women. On paper they have a simple playoff system – It involves the top 4 teams, with 1st playing 4th and 2nd playing 3rd. The winners match off in the Grand Final and that is that – There are just the 3 matches in the post-season. This is largely because it’s a small league – Just the 7 teams who each play 10 games per season. Consequently the margins are always fine and the every week is pretty much a playoff.

Which has been the undoing of the Perth Glory Women in each of the 4 seasons held thus far. They’ve never finished better than 5th.

I do have hopes for them this coming season, as I do for the Dockers this Saturday against Geelong and Liverpool FC across the next 8 months. This would be the case regardless of what system they need to go through to win. That’s the beauty of sport – You just have to be the best and if you can be then somehow you’ll end up on top.

And yes, that’s a position too. Don’t google that at work either.

You’ll See Things In A Different Way

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