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Opinion: Is the new Canadian Premier League playoff format a masterstroke or mistake?

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The Canadian Premier League introduced a new playoff format for its upcoming 2023 season this week. This is the league’s fifth playoff format in five years.

And initial reactions were mixed, to say the least.

The 2023 CPL playoffs will feature five teams, up from four in recent seasons. The fourth and fifth placed teams from the regular season will contest a playoff. The winner advances to play the third place team. First and second placed teams play each other with the winner advancing to host the final. The loser gets a second chance, with a semifinal against the winner of the third/fourth/fifth places path. The winner of that advances to the final.

The winner will win the North Star Shield and join the regular season winner in the following season’s Concacaf Champions League.

2023 Canadian Premier League playoff format

2023 Canadian Premier League playoff format

The same complex playoff format is used in Canadian national curling championships and some cricket leagues. With regard to soccer, the same format was once used by the Australian A-League, but it was replaced with a more traditional format over a decade ago.

However, the CPL believes its new playoff format will ensure,”stiffer competition and even more excitement in the battle to be crowned postseason champion.”

Making a case for the new Canadian Premier League playoff format

Canadian Premier League vice-president of media and content Kristian Jack made an impassioned pitch for the new format on OneSoccer Wednesday.

“I’m really proud of this system,” Jack said, speaking with OneSoccer host Adam Jenkins. “It’s one I really pushed for as well with the league. For me, ultimately, every game needs to matter within a league campaign.”

Jack says the tiered format will address concerns that surfaced last season around the insignificance of where teams finished the regular season.

“We heard a lot of coaches saying it doesn’t really matter whether we finish second, third or fourth,” he said. “You can’t really have that in a development league.”

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Jack also emphasized that the new format will benefit players looking to move beyond the CPL.

“We have to have games of meaning so much in a development league,” he said. “So when players go to Poland, like they’ve done, or Scotland, or go to the European, (or) places all around the world, that they’re going into a competitive environment right away. And that’s what the CPL is trying to continue to create and exist for.”

Fans question the new Canadian Premier League playoff format

However, the immediate response by fans on Twitter to the announced playoff format was swift and mostly negative.

Twitter users replied with comments such as “Stop trying to fix something that isn’t broken”, “This comes across as too gimmicky” and “This is so awful”.

The complex fixture bracket and the decision to give a team in the lower half of the final league table a playoff spot, effectively rewarding a below average league performance, were the primary targets of derision.

The initial feedback suggests few, if any, fans were engaged in the decision making process. This may have been a mistake by the league, given the furor.

Playoffs key to the CPL’s success

But there’s no question, playoffs are required for a league of this age and standard of play. As Jack admits, the CPL is a development league.

The quality of play is improving. But it’s still well below that of other leagues in North America and around the world. Since fans will always make those comparisons, the league needs a hook.

And the CPL currently only has eight teams. It can’t use promotion/relegation to keep the competition interesting all season long, as is common in European leagues.

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Playoffs are the best and easiest way to generate excitement and end-of-season interest.

But the league may have overthought the format this time around, with it’s excessive playoff spots and the variety of playoff paths.

Overthinking is a sin the league has been guilty of in the past – for example: choosing not to use city names with most of its first clubs in 2019 (a mistake the CPL has thankfully corrected with it’s most recent expansion teams).

What problem is the league trying to solve with this format?

When the league was launched in 2019, it was a common opinion that clubs needed match attendances to average around 5,000 per game for the league to be sustainable. Five years in and that average hasn’t been reached. Of course, major factors beyond the league’s control have contributed to this short fall, primarily the pandemic.

And it was good to see some attendance averages increase last season, if only slightly. But it’s now clear more time is required to reach league attendance targets and the related financial targets.

Also, the CPL has failed to gain a foothold in the mainstream sports media market in its first five years. Comprehensive coverage of the league is available on its broadcast partner OneSoccer. But there’s a level of exposure and legitimacy that comes with having games or highlights shared via the main national sports networks that the CPL has yet to achieve.

Interestingly, the Canadian Elite Basketball League, a league launched the same year as the CPL, recently signed a deal with TSN to have a game of the week shown on the national broadcaster. This seems a major milestone that any similar fledgling league might envy.

It’s safe to infer the CPL hopes a playoff format keeping more teams in the playoff race later into the season will maintain interest, improve attendances, increase revenue and boost exposure.

From that point of view, the expanded playoff format makes sense and there’s potential for it to be successful. It may be complicated, but it does appear to make more games matter. Which is the intent.

But the decision to implement a fifth playoff format in five years suggests an element of instability.

Is anyone else a little concerned knowing the Canadian Premier League feels the need to change its playoff format, yet again?

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About Author

Photographer and Writer | Stuart Gradon is soccer journalist and web communications professional. He covers Cavalry FC of the Canadian Premier League and Canada's national teams. He has also worked on assignment at FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022, FIFA Women's World Cup Canada 2015 and FIFA World Cup South Africa 2010.

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