This week the Chelsea Football Club won their first English Premiere League title in fifty years. The Premiereship does things a little differently from American sports with respect to the significance of regular season versus playoffs. I like their way better.
In England, there are essentially three big titles you can win. There is the aforementioned Premiereship regular season crown. Next there is the FA Cup, which is like the playoffs but is played throughout the course of the year, with only the championship being played after the regular season has ended. And then there is the Champions League, an all-star roster of European teams in which the top four Premiereship teams from last year get to play.
Aside from the Champions League, which is not really comparable to any major league American sports scenario, I love the fact that the English Premiere League, through the Premiereship crown and the FA Cup, awards equal significance to finishing with the best regular season record and winning the playoffs, essentially an elimination tournament.
I’ve long thought that in American sports, be it the NFL or NBA or MLB (the New England Patriots don't play the Edmonton Eskimoes, for example, and the Boston Red Sox don't play the Yomiyuri Giants), it’s a shame that all those games played in the regular season have so little importance other than qualifying for the playoffs. I think if a team finishes with the best regular season record, that should be considered a very important achievement in and of itself—one of two coveted crowns along with the playoff championship.
Take the Portland Trail Blazers, my favorite professional franchise. The team is credited with one NBA championship, which they won in the 1976-77 season. There are also two other occasions where the Blazers finished with the best regular season record: 1977-78 (58-24, with a 50-10 record through February) and 1990-91 (63-19, including a 21-1 start). Yet in both cases, those seasons seem to carry more disappointment than joy because they didn't lead to championships. In 77-78 Bill Walton got injured during the playoffs, and Portland of course couldn’t win the title without him. In 90-91 the Clyde Drexler-led Blazers were upset by Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers during the Western Conference Finals.
I’d like to have license to look upon those two impressive Trail Blazer seasons with the pride of accomplishment. If there were some kind of official title or trophy associated with those stellar seasons, say maybe the “Michael Jordan Trophy” for the regular season crown (Jordan’s 1995-96 Chicago Bulls earned the best regular season ever at 72-10), then I’d almost feel like the Blazers had three crowns instead of one.
Of course not everybody out there is a Blazer fan, but there are lots of other great teams in football, basketball and baseball that had great regular seasons only to lose in the playoffs. A few years ago the Seattle Mariners broke the American League record and tied the major league record for wins, but they lost to the Yankees in the ALCS. A couple years before that the NFL’s Minnesota Vikings finished 15-1 but were upended in the NFC championship game by the Atlanta Falcons. Those teams deserved to be honored, yet I’m sure their fans feel nothing but frustration because there is no honor for the regular season crown.
And yet, to me having the best regular season record is arguably a more valid indication of a team’s greatness than winning the playoffs, where a team can get hot and go on a winning streak and suddenly wind up running away with the title. There’s a nobility to the regular season in sports that isn’t appreciated, I think. It’s the bread to the playoffs’ cake. Cake is sweeter, of course, but it’s bread that is there sustaining us day in and day out. To me that’s where the greater honor lies.