Playoffs are interesting things. Ostensibly they exist so that the best team will eventually prevail. But, all too often, in some playoff schemes teams that are undeserving get in. In others, a lucky score determines the champion. Every year, it seems, some situation arrives that makes me wonder if there might not be a better way.
Generally speaking, in any situation where a “balanced” league structure exists (divisions, conferences, etc.) the easy standard has been to select the same number of teams from each of the subgroups. I’m going to use the WNBA for an easy example. In 2010, they have twelve teams in two conferences of six teams each. They select the top four teams from each conference to advance to the playoffs. Easy. But is it fair?
The current WNBA season has been a strange one. In the West conference, only one team has a winning record. The rest are several games back of .500. The worst team in the East conference has a better record than the 2nd-best team in the West. With that in mind, is an even-up strategy a fair one? I think not.
In a situation like this, I’d like to see something like this: top three teams in each conference plus the next best two teams (“best of the rest”) regardless of conference. Most of the time, the results will be the same as the current four-best-team model. In odd seasons, as the WNBA is experiencing, this sort of accommodation will generally allow for better match-ups in the post-season.
The calculation is really very simple: You count up the number of lowest-placed teams in every sub-group. That’s the number of the “best of the rest” teams that get selected.
Many leagues favor the wild-card, play-in option. It lets the teams have a hand in determining their fate. It also requires an extra round of play that, in effect, exists as an extended playoff series with byes for the top teams. While valid, it still doesn’t really alter discrepancies such as the one mentioned with the WNBA, above–especially when there is significant inter-group play during the regular season.
Powers of Two
How many teams should participate in a playoffs? Let’s first look at a straight-up paired contest scenario. Here, the structure is based on powers-of-two: 2, 4, 8, 16, 32, 64, etc. In order to accommodate different entry sizes, an initial bye-round is sometimes used to allow the top teams to have an extra period of rest. (For example: if your tournament had 48 slots, the top 16 teams would have a bye while the other 32 teams would participate in a 16-contest first round.) How do we determine how many teams to place in a playoff field?
Again, it’s a power-of-two thing. As a start, you look at the sub-group with the most number of teams. You halve that total and then round to the nearest power of two. For an eight-team group, you halve that to get 4–which is the power of 2 you use. For a six-team group, you halve that to get 3…right in-between 2 and 4. Any of 2, 3 w/byes, or 4 will be correct. The choice to be made is one more of practicality than anything else: how many teams can you afford to have in a playoff? Generally speaking, for any group with eight teams or fewer, go with the larger power of two unless other other circumstances warrant a small choice. For groups with more than eight, either go with the smaller power or use a bye-system.
Many sports will have a playoff series. These are best of (typically) 3-, 5-, 0r 7- games. Of these, the 5-game structure seems to be the best. It allows recovery from an anomalous game while also not taxing the attention or resources of the audience or league. Some will argue that 7-games allows for the true champion to emerge with a closely matched pair, but I’d argue that 5-games does the same while avoiding needless tedium and expense.
I would like to see the end of single-elimination contests. There’s too much opportunity for luck to excessively influence the outcome. I’ve long been in favor of true double-elimination structures. Basically, it takes two losses for you to be eliminated (and unlike many pool/billiard double-elimination matches, this applies also to the championship pairing). A sport such as association football (aka football, soccer, futbol, etc.) would benefit from this sort of scheme.
These are just a few suggestions of tweaks that can be made to existing systems. I believe that, all-in-all, they eliminate some of the fortuitous circumstances that sometimes cast a pall over some end-of-season championships. It’s by no means definitive or exhaustive. Even so, it’s food for thought.