In the first leg of their Champions League semifinal, Bayern Munich scored four goals against Barcelona, taking a nearly insurmountable lead to Camp Nou for the second leg of the epic clash.
For international football competitions like the Champions League tournament, results in the knockout rounds are tabulated by aggregate scoring. It's not enough to just win a match, but winning by more goals, in aggregate, over two matches—home and away—is the only way to secure a team's trip to the next round.
Barcelona isn't just down one game in a series of three, five or seven—like the club would be in a traditional American playoff structure—they are down four goals to a team that has only given up eight goals all season. One game, with a return leg at home, wouldn't be that difficult to overcome. Four goals, however, seems impossible.
Seeing such a striking result in the first leg of a Champions League semifinal gave me a thought: What if the American playoff system was also based on aggregate, not on a "best-of" series?
With the NBA playoffs in full swing and the NHL regular season coming to a close, let's take a closer look at what the traditional American sports might look like if playoffs were scored on aggregate.
AGGREGATE PLAYOFF FORMAT
Unlike the Champions League, it would be unfair to decide a playoff series that is currently a best-of-seven format with just two games.
Still, leagues would no longer need seven games to determine a winner. From a logistical standpoint, if the playoff series were scored on aggregate, the series could be an even number of games, giving each team the same number of home games.
Logic would dictate that each team would host two games, with the better seed getting the final two games in their arena.
Having said that, there's money to be made in the playoffs, and the deeper a series goes, the more cash the owners take in from ticket sales, concessions and parking. Making each series a mandatory six games would appease the owners by guaranteeing each franchise three home games per playoff round, while giving teams that fall into an early hole plenty of time to come back, making the coaches and players happy, too.
If a series were a six-game set, having the top seed play Games 1, 2 and 5 on the road and Games 3, 4 and 6 at home would still provide some advantage in the series. If a league wanted to give an even greater advantage, the top seed could host Games 1, 2 and 6, giving them the series opener and closer both at home.
AGGREGATE IN THE NBA PLAYOFFS
Certainly the high-scoring nature of the NBA would make for a ridiculously exciting playoff series if scored on aggregate.
Think about it this way: With the current setup, a team could win three games in a series by a total of three points and, despite the hairline difference in the two teams, the series would essentially be over at 3-0.
If scored on aggregate, the winning team would only have a three-point advantage in the series, easily wiped away with one long-range shot in Game 4's opening seconds.
Really, regardless of the score of the previous games, the trailing team would almost never be out of any playoff series. (Note: A 50-point lead heading into the final game would probably be hard to overcome.)
Coaches would constantly need to adjust their in-game strategy, not just for winning that individual contest, but for setting up a plan for the entire series, regardless of each game's outcome.
If a team has a big lead in a game early in the series, most coaches would take the proverbial foot off the gas, rest the stars and prepare for the next game. Not with aggregate. If a team can blow an opponent out, they have to take advantage of that opportunity.
Every minute of those early games will matter for both teams, so there is no coasting; no garbage time.
Take this season as an example: At the time of this post being published, the Miami Heat lead the Milwaukee Bucks 2-0 in their first-round series, but Miami leads on aggregate 208-173, or plus-35 points.
The Denver-Golden State series is tied at one game apiece, but with the Warrior's 131-point outburst in Game 2, they hold a 226-214 advantage on aggregate.
Twelve points doesn't seem like a lot, but it certainly would feel a heckuva lot better than only being tied.
What about Oklahoma City, which thumped Houston 120-91 in their first game, but could easily see the series tied with a squeaker one-point Houston victory in the second game? Were that to happen with a series on aggregate, OKC would still be up big heading into Game 3, thereby giving greater value to greater victories.
Now the downside of this, of course, would be a series with a few early blowouts. Let's say, for example, that despite being down two games to none, the Bucks manage to win two games to tie the series with Miami, but each of those wins is only by two points or less. The series would be tied in wins, but Miami would still be ahead in aggregate by more than 30 points.
In a traditional series, Game 5 would be huge, but in a six-game aggregate series, there would be far less pressure on the Heat heading into the final two games with such a large advantage.
While the drama may not be as high in that scenario, the format would clearly benefit the better team in the series. In most cases, the losing team would still have a chance—however distant—heading into the final game.
AGGREGATE IN THE NHL PLAYOFFS
In the NHL, or any sport where scoring is at a premium, playing a playoff series on aggregate could make more sense than a best-of series. As of right now, if a team wins one game 2-1 and loses the next 8-0, the series is tied. Sure, there may be more momentum for a team that wins by eight, but there is no tangible advantage for any team winning big.
In last year's Stanley Cup Finals, the Los Angeles Kings beat the New Jersey Devils four games to two, winning the series on aggregate 16 goals to eight. The Kings shot out to a three-game lead in the series before the Devils won the next two games to make the finals somewhat of a series. Still, even after the Devils won two games, nobody really thought the Kings would lose the Cup after getting out to that three-game advantage.
Now—say it with me—if the finals were scored on aggregate, the Kings would have held a mere two-goal advantage after two games. Even after a 4-0 win in Game 3, the Kings would have held an 8-2 advantage in the series, which seems far less prohibitive than the Devils being down three-games-to-none in a best-of-seven series.
After Game 5, the Devils trailed just 10-7 on goals, making the final game of a potential six-game aggregate difficult to win, but probably less so than winning another two games in a row.
So maybe that's the question with all these scenarios: Is it harder to win two games in a row, or beat a team by four goals in one game?
And which scenario would be more entertaining to watch?
AGGREGATE IN THE MLB PLAYOFFS
The last major American team sport in this conversation is probably the one that would be best served converting to an aggregate system. The old baseball cliché says that momentum is as good as the next day's starting pitcher, and nothing would make that more true than scoring on aggregate.
In a sport where every run, every hit and, heck, every pitch matters, a blowout could change the path of an aggregate series in an instant. Every run would matter not just in the context of that game, but in the framework of the entire series, making every pitch—and every decision by a manager—that much more important.
In the current system, losing 5-0 in a key game is no different than losing 5-4. When every run counts, each decision becomes magnified.
In the 2012 World Series, the San Francisco Giants beat the Detroit Tigers in four straight games. Boring.
Had they played the series—all together now—in aggregate, Detroit would have gone into a potential Game 5 down 10 runs; a lot to make up, but hardly an insurmountable lead from which to recover with two games left to play.
Let's not forget about that momentum factor. It's not just the next day's starting pitcher, but where the series stands when heading into Game 4.
If a team holds a 3-0 lead in the series, the end result is inevitable. While the Tigers were outscored 12-3 in the first three games, one big inning and a crooked number early in Game 4 could get a team right back into things, without having to win three straight games just to tie the series.
Perhaps the best case for—and in a way against–aggregate scoring came in last year's NLCS, when the San Francisco Giants rebounded from three-games-to-one down to win the pennant over the St. Louis Cardinals in seven games.
A team coming back from a huge deficit to win a series sounds exciting, doesn't it? Well, only two of the seven games were decided by two runs or fewer, with the other five games being decided by five runs or more.
Now, when you look back at the series in aggregate, the score of each game would have been far more important, giving some of those blowouts a much-needed infusion of drama while threading the outcome through each game.
After two games, the series was tied at one game apiece, with the Giants up 11-7 in runs. After a 3-1 Cardinals victory in Game 3, the Giants would have been down in games (2-1) but up in runs (12-10).
The Cardinals took Game 4 with a score of 8-3, taking the overall runs lead in the process, scoring 18 runs to the Giants' 15 through four games. Already, there would have been more drama to look forward to than there was through four games.
The Giants won Game 5 5-0, yet still trailed in the series, needing to win the final two games to advance to the World Series. In a six-game aggregate series, the Giants would have taken a two-run lead into the final game, despite being down 3-2 in wins.
The Giants would have won the series either way, but counting the runs throughout the entirety of 54 innings would have actually provided a far more dramatic in-game experience for those watching, and a much tougher managerial problem for those in charge of each team.
NOT BETTER, JUST DIFFERENT
I know it reads this way, but this exercise was not an effort to suggest the current American playoff structure is broken or needs to be changed. It was more to see how different the playoffs might be if every single score served equally in determining the winner, regardless of when or in which game it was scored.
In most cases, the team that scores the most points wins each series, but in some cases, a team could advance in the playoffs—or even win a championship—by winning more games, but scoring fewer points.
Our current structure is predicated on wins, not overall points, while the current structure in, say, the Champions League is utterly predicated on goals (it even gives the team with more goals on the road a tiebreaker in total aggregate tallies).
Don't worry: The American system won't suddenly change to aggregate scoring, but it's interesting to wonder how teams would perform differently—and how coaches would manage in-game situations differently—if every minute of every game truly mattered the same as the next.
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