As the NBA’s regular season is coming to an end, and playoffs are about to begin, I have decided to discuss and compare the different playoff formats for popular sports. Much discussion has surfaced over the years as to which format is the “best.” But best for whom? Best for the fans, the leagues, the players, the media, or possibly another source?
As the major sports go, there are only two which the playoffs offer a “one and done” high intensity format: the NFL and the NCAA basketball tournament.
The NCAA basketball tournament is the only of its kind where a team’s record is not the basis for getting into the postseason. In fact a group of individuals who have no connection to the teams at all, single handedly pick who gets to play and who doesn’t. One could argue that conference winners allow teams with good records to be guaranteed a spot in the tourney. However, in conference tournaments, even the last place team can go on a run and win their spot. What happens when the tournament is filled with under 500 teams?
Imagine if this were the case in other sports. Even in a down year like the last, there is no way an NFL committee would have let the Miami Dolphins make the playoffs over Tom Brady and the Patriots. And don’t even get me started on the Yankees and Lakers. Because of this, even with the madness, the NCAA tournament is not the optimum post-season format.
The NFL playoffs may be the only format that puts so much pressure on individual games. Not only is it one loss and you’re out, but it happens only one day a week. It is no coincidence that churches throughout the country incur a significant drop in attendance during January.
So much hype that goes into every game, and being the most watched sport in America has to make the NFL the best, right? Wrong. The NFL requires their champion to win the least amount of games in the post-season. Division winners must only win three games to be crowned champion. In some sports three games doesn’t get you out of the first round.
The MLS, yes I said the MLS, has a pretty interesting playoff format. You probably haven’t heard about it, (because no one really pays attention to the MLS) but I’ll go over the basics anyway. No matter the sport, the argument stands that it’s s always for the best teams to play for the championship. How does the MLS get around this; no restrictions on divisions.
That’s right, the MLS sets its seeds in the playoffs by the best 8 records in the league, period. This means 6 teams could go from one conference, as opposed to 2 from the other. Don’t smirk; it has already happened twice.
I would be interested to see how this approach would fair in something like the NBA, where in recent memory, the 10th and 11 place teams in the west have a better record than the 7th and 8th in the east.
The MLB and NBA have fairly similar playoff formats. Along with the NHL, these sports have learned that teams must play multiple times if the best team is to be decided. However, some say it takes the excitement out of the game. Newsflash, the first eight innings in baseball takes the excitement out of the game. Plus, if the whole purpose is just to see the Red Sox vs. Yankees, what is the point of watching any of the other games?
I will say that the MLB format, and really just baseball in general, allows us to see the players grow from a star to a legend. Only in the MLB can a roll player like Hideki Matsui win the World Series MVP and go down in Yankee lore. (And then not be offered in free agency). The MLB postseason also shows the fans the grit and determination of pitchers who usually sit out an entire week between games, only sit out three or so days.
The problem with the MLB is not what lies in the “post”, but more the “season.” When I watch starting pitchers play after three days rest, come out of the bullpen, and play through bloody socks, I can’t help but wonder why the first 100 games are even played.
As the NBA post season arrives, I must say this format takes the cake. While that may not have been said a couple years ago, switching the format of each series to seven games made it all but a lock.
While I personally like the 2-2-1-1-1 format better than the 2-3-2 as played in the finals, either way makes for a fantastic series. The NBA is the only system that forces a lower seed team to make a run and do it for a continued period of time.
In just last year’s playoffs, fans were captivated by the young Bulls who took the savvy Celtics to seven games in possibly the best playoff series of all time. Or just two years ago when an 8 seed in Golden State beat the favorite and number 1 seeded Dallas Mavericks. Both of these series’ are what the playoffs are all about; oh, and these were just in the first round!
I cannot wait to see what happens this year. While the NBA wins my award for best playoff structure for now, there is no telling what could happen in the future. As some expand to 95 teams, new formats like the FedEx Cup in Golf, or the growing popularity of aggregate in soccer overseas, I will say there is still room for improvement. Overall, no matter the sport, each post season captivates fans new and old, and provides memories for years to come.