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Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Define “Playoffs” for Me

Stephanie Wei, over at Wei Under Par, wrote a post called "Why the FedEx Cup Really Stinks" that’s well worth a read. Her take on the playoffs is that they aren’t creating the drama they’re supposed to, and that Heath Slocum’s jump from 124 to 3 in the rankings proves that the Tour still hasn’t got it right. She also says “There should be more on the line to keep the pressure on the players and to make it more interesting for the fans.”

Now, knowing that just a couple of days ago I said “maybe the PGA got the points system right this year,” you might think I disagree with her… but I don’t. She’s right on all counts, but she makes an assumption that I think most of us fans make: We think that when the PGA talks about “playoffs,” they’re talking about the same thing we are.

They aren’t.

Steph begins by saying, “Few really understand how the FedEx Cup points system works,” and this is true… but not the way you might think. When she talks about playoffs, she talks about what the typical fan wants to see―closely-matched players, toe-to-toe, duking it out for the win. She talks about passion and desire; about pressure to play well in order to move on; about competition that keeps fans and players excited.

And at first glance, it appears the Tour has the same thing in mind. They have a commercial with Emmett Smith talking about those very things. And they have another commercial where Tour players talk about the Cup being worth more than majors, and Padraig Harrington saying that someday people will be concerned about how many FedEx Cups you’ve won…

What? Say that again? A FedEx Cup worth more than a major?

That’s just hype… and so are the playoffs. When the Tour says “playoffs,” it means “ratings and money machine.” In most playoffs, the top teams get a “bye.” I can hear the phone call to the Barclays Tournament office now: “Oh hi, folks. Just thought we’d let you know we made some changes to improve the playoffs. NONE of the Top 30 players will be showing up for your event, so you’ll have to do the best you can to sell tickets. Of course, we truly appreciate the millions of dollars you’re paying out to support the event and we're sure you’ll get your money’s worth.” How long do you think Barclays would continue to sponsor the event?

For the PGA Tour, the playoffs are an opportunity to guarantee that most of the top players will show up in four specific events. If the Tour thought they could cut all four fields to the top 30 without a riot among the other players, they probably would; this would allow them to cut the total purse a sponsor needed to put up without cutting the top prizes, thus making the playoffs an easier sell to corporate America. The last thing they want is the possibility that a top player may get knocked out, or that a relative unknown may take down a big name; that’s why you see so few Tour match play events.

Of course, such things happen in true playoffs, so you have to provide the illusion that it may happen. Hence, we have a system that allows a Heath Slocum to become that most coveted of media darlings, the “Cinderella story.” Will Heath win the Cup? Probably not; as good a player as he is, he’s unlikely to keep up that level of play for three more weeks.

Oh, and something was lost amid the discussion of Heath’s rapid advance through the ranks. Ernie Els was 47 and Padraig Harrington 66 coming into this week; they now sit at 11 and 14, respectively. Heath Slocum may not be a big name, but Els and Harrington are; now they’re well inside the top 30. The same "volatility" that jumped Heath up in the rankings also allowed two big names to get back in it as well.

So, pardon the pun but here’s the score:
  • The name players at the top are still in the running.
  • Several big names who were well down in the rankings moved up into contention.
  • And a “Cinderella” emerged, making it appear that one of the rank-and-file has a legitimate chance to win.
On the whole, I’d bet the Tour, the sponsors, and the media are very happy with the “playoff” system so far. It all depends on how you define “playoffs.”

1 comment:

  1. The word "playoffs" was an unfortunate word that got tossed out early in the planning stages of this race for $10 million. You're right, the term doesn't fit - but the media didn't have a better word for it either - and didn't try very hard to come up with anything.
    - now they're stuck with it.

    The original idea was to be similar to the NASCAR series, which isn't a "playoff" either.

    What this really is is a late season series of tournaments with big dollar purses to get the top names on the course after the PGA and before the Ryder and Presidents Cups. Fed Ex gets a lot of advertising - TV gets 4 more weeks of good weather golf with the big names before the football season completely takes over and the baseball playoffs begin - and the players have a shot at some very big paychecks.

    It's not really a big mystery. The bottom of the points list has a small chance of moving on to the next week - but unless something huge happens - like a Heath Slocum getting back in the winner's circle - there really isn't a lot of significant moving from bottom to top. Not a lot of attention gets paid to them anyway.

    If Tiger doesn't win - the media whines, conveniently forgetting that this is how sports work. If Tiger does win, the media whines about the points system and how this isn't really a playoff system.