Table talk

Would you like to read a long, long, LONG analysis of the likelihood of MLS turning to single table?

Really? Why?

Well, anyway, here one is.

Grahame Jones of the LA Times is, I believe, the highest-profile writer so far to call for MLS to ditch the playoffs, as far as crowning a champion is concerned.

"Bunk,*" said I. "Why, a single table is unheard of in America, and..."

Except it isn't. Not historically speaking.

Why did the single table/promotion and relegation pyramid win out in England, and why did playoffs triumph so comprehensively in the United States and Canada?

The turning point in England was when the Football Alliance was eaten by the Football League in 1892, and the Second Division was established. Automatic promotion and relegation wasn't officially established until 1898, but each bottom-finisher in the First Division had to defend their position, so the principle was there.

Meanwhile, when what we know today as the National League (of baseball, for our foreign and/or national pastime-phobic friends) went through considerable turmoil before 1901, when it stabilized at eight teams and was forced to recognized a separate but equal American League of eight teams. The two leagues played an entirely separate schedule, with league winners meeting in October to decide a champion. Geography played no part, as several cities maintain competing teams in different leagues to this day. If you had a club in, say, Milwaukee or Los Angeles or San Francisco or Baltimore or Atlanta, and felt you could compete with the majors - tough toenails. No team even moved until 1953, and no expansion was allowed until 1961.

Baseball's championship format remained until 1969. But the actual championship series was so important and newsworthy that it influenced other sports greatly - and the idea that clubs could or would play their way into major league status was denied, and made laughable when Branch Rickey established his system of feeder clubs for the Cardinals.

The Great Depression settled the issue for the National Football League. A one-game playoff was used as a tiebraker in 1932, and from then on the NFL abandoned its single table format. (Said format was sort of ridiculous, however, since non-league games counted in the standings some of the time.)

The National Hockey League has always used playoffs...even when there were only two, three, or four teams in the league. For decades during the Original Six era, the top four teams met in the playoffs. For those of you who are curious, by the "Would the Red Bulls be legitimate champions?" theory, the NHL thus crowned unworthy and unjust winners in 1945, 1947, 1949, 1951, 1953, 1957, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1965, and 1967. After so many years of O'Brien Cup winners being denied the Stanley Cup, the NHL finally gave in to the desires of its real fans and folded...er, I mean, doubled in size and abandoned the single table.

Since World War II, no new North American professional sports league has been established without using a post-season playoff system to decide its champion.

The Great Lost American Soccer League of the 1920's (read Colin Jose's book for the details) began as a good old down home traditional single table...and then collapsed in every way known to man. In its final season, 1932, first place faced second for a two-game championship playoff. The second place team won. Its semiprofessional successor relied on playoffs. The St. Louis Soccer League of this time maintained its single table purity up until its final demise in 1939.

Mexico used to determine its champion with a single table, but since 1970, maybe inspired by the tournament system of the World Cup, has gone with playoffs. The playoffs have expanded greatly since then, from two teams out of eighteen to ten out of eighteen. If there are Eurosnobs in Mexico, they are currently celebrating their thirty-ninth year of irrelevancy and silence.

The Mexico system is fairly instructive. That league is at least as driven by television revenue as any outside...well, the United States. However, playoffs weren't the only means used to increase income - the split season has been around since 1996, and isn't going away anytime soon. I think we can be sure that if MLS thought a split season would make more money, we'd also be handing out little stars like elementary schools.

(Why do I consider split season winners to be half-champions, but accept without question playoff winners? That's a wonderful question which I will give the appropriate amount of attention.)

MLS is unusual because its playoffs have tended to draw pretty horribly...except recently. The first leg of the first round was an attendance dog, outside of Salt Lake. Afterwards, things picked up significantly. We're much more likely to see a tinkering with the playoff system, assuming that the playoffs continue to lose money. And there's no indication that MLS Cup loses money, even if the playoffs do.

But it's not completely unheard of playoffs have been abandoned in favor of the single table. England's Southern League used a championship game for decades, before ditching it in 1960.

I've sent e-mails to the league offices of The Football League and the Southern League - sorry, the British Gas Business League - to see if they have records of how they made their decisions.

If I had to guess, though, I'd say that in the 1890's, professionalism itself was a matter of dispute, so a "pure" system of competition and fixtures was more likely to be imposed on the defeated little clubs of the Football Alliance. And as far as why the Southern League abandoned the playoff experiment...well, it was probably too non-traditional for the heart of England, and really, how much money was there in the 1960's sub-sub-Football League pyramid, anyway? It was probably more trouble than it was worth to schedule the championship game.

That's pretty much what would have to happen for MLS to go with a single entity as we more or less know it - MLS Cup itself would have to start losing money on a Giants Stadium weeknight game level. It's not easy to see the league surviving if no one cares about its declared championship game, either.

So even if MLS establishes a single table, it will be one on the NHL Original Six/WUSA model...one with playoffs attached. Which I'm pretty sure is not what people mean when they say "single table." That's actually a "balanced schedule."

It's more rational to argue for a champion decided on a league basis than to argue for, say, promotion and relegation. (I can do an equally long description of the history and divergences of the US and the UK here, too, but the only people who need convincing on promotion and relegation are pre-teens, and I don't have an illustrator yet. "The Children's Book of Why MLS Will Never Have Promotion and Relegation" has Newberry Medal written all over it, but all I can do are stick figures.) But the conclusion is the same. It's not gonna happen.

*Susan Marschall of the MLS front office wanted bloggers to start using this word more.