Injustice League: Are Postseason Formats in American Sports a Sham?
After pinching myself (hard) to wake myself up from what I thought was a dream, I finally accepted that either VCU or Butler will be playing for the Men’s NCAA Basketball National Title this year.
Huh? Yep, that’s not a joke.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the NCAA Tournament just as much as every other red-blooded American sports fan. And I have to say that it is undeniably intriguing that either of those two teams will actually have a shot at the title. That being said, the present circumstances certainly call into question the legitimacy of determining a National Champion in such a manner.
When Matt Hasselbeck’s five-year-old son can out-pick 95 percent of the country—including NCAA analysts—by selecting teams based on mascot, one begins to question the system. In fact, out of over five million brackets filled out online at ESPN.com, only two have the Final Four picked correctly.
Now, since I like filling out a bracket as much as the next five year old, I’m not proposing any changes to the current system. I only marginally care about NCAA basketball as it is. If there was no tournament, that amount would be far closer to zero. However, this Final Four matchup has caused me to think about other sports and their methods for determining a champion.
Which ones have it right? Which champions can legitimately display that title with pride and not embarrassment?
Let’s take a look at all the major American sports and see which of their postseason champion-crowning methods are legitimate, debatable or ludicrous. I will take into consideration a number of factors in evaluating the systems, including: the importance and sanctity of the regular season, the pool size for possible winners, the probability of a one-off upset and the probability of an underdog winning it all.
Here we go.
NFL (Playoff: Single Elimination)
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The NFL regular season remains only marginally important within the context of their playoff system. In order to get in, you have to either win your division or have a good enough record to get a wild card berth. The top two teams get a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs (assuming No. 2 doesn’t play No. 1).
Out of 32 total teams, only 12 (six NFC, six AFC) make the playoffs. The likelihood of a one-off upset in any particular round is relatively high in the early rounds, but diminishes toward the later rounds. That being said, nearly half of the teams in the league make the playoffs, and it’s not uncommon for a wild card team to win the Super Bowl.
Because there are no multi-game series played, we have to deal with there being upsets and a hot team will stand the best chance of winning it all.
NBA (Playoff: Seven Game Series)
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Like the NFL, about half of all teams in the NBA make the playoffs. However, unlike the NFL, the NBA plays a seven game series for each round to determine the winner. This simple fact makes it far less likely for not only an underdog to win the title, but for even a single one-off upset to occur in any round.
There are usually only about four or five teams in any given year that have an actual shot at winning the title (this is either good or bad depending on your allegiance). Nearly every time, two teams from that group that are matched up in the final.
The No. 1 seed may not win the title every time, but rarely does the NBA crown a champion that people don’t believe to have been the best team.
NCAA Basketball (Playoff: Single Elimination Tournament)
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The regular season, for the majority of teams, is just a warm-up for the tournament. Even for the mid-majors that pretty much have to win their conference to make the tournament, the regular season doesn’t matter. All they have to do is get hot in their conference tournament and win it to make the NCAA Tourney. They could have ranked dead last in the regular season standings.
Unlike the series format of the NBA, the NCAA Tourney is single elimination. This drastically improves the likelihood of a one-off upset happening. This, coupled with a terrible regular season (in relation to crowning a champ), really diminishes the sanctity of the winning team’s title as champion.
Result: Ludicrous (yet… Awesome!)
NCAA Football (BCS: Polls and Computer Rankings)
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Yes, I hear the cries of “We want a playoff!” To an extent, I agree.
Say what you will about the BCS and its infinite flaws, but it sure makes the regular season exciting! Every single game matters. The only problem is that it matters more for some than for others (see TCU this year). This, is unfair and I think a plus-one game would solve the problem. But rarely, if ever, has there been a championship game where you couldn’t say that the winner had a legitimate claim to the title.
Some deserving teams may not be given the chance to prove they could win, but hardly ever is the winner a team that shouldn’t win.
Result: Debatable (Inches from legitimate, but isn’t because every team doesn’t have an equal shot)
MLB (Playoff: Five & Seven Game Series)
Only eight out of over 30 teams make the playoffs in the MLB! So, in terms of the right teams making the postseason, it is pretty much unmatched. However, once you’re in the post-season, throw those records and seeds out the window; it becomes a crap-shoot based primarily on a team’s pitching rotation.
Because starting pitchers only pitch once every week at most, a lot of a team’s regular season success has to do with their hitting and bullpen performance.
Not so in the playoffs.
Since you only have to play five or seven games, all of your starting pitchers can pitch, with some starting multiple games. This substantially tips the balance in favor of the team with the best starting pitching.
Baseball’s system puts the right teams in the playoffs, but from there it’s a roll of the dice.
NHL (Playoff: Seven Game Series)
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The NHL playoffs have it right in my opinion. The long seven-game series format does its best to make sure that the right teams make it through. Although upsets certainly do happen, they have more to do with a team getting hot at the right time, or having outstanding goalkeeping, and rarely do those teams win it all.
The regular season still matters, because seeding is very important when you have a long series to play; usually the better team will win. Just the right amount of teams get into the playoffs to make for an exciting, but fair competition.
Some Cursory Thoughts on Possible Changes
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NFL—Nothing much can be done. Football does not lend itself to playing a series, and the polls/computer rankings used for the BCS won’t work when teams are all relatively evenly matched in terms of talent pool.
NCAAB—Insane, but great! Just get rid of this stupid “First Four.” That being said, GO VCU!
NCAAF—Keep the BCS system, but get rid of automatic qualifying. Also, and add a plus-1 game at the end (i.e. a four team playoff) that will alleviate the problem of crowning a champion when more than two teams end the season undefeated.
MLB—Not much can be done to change the fact that pitchers will rule in the post-season series format. But I’m actually in favor of adding a few more teams to the mix. Unless you root for one of the large-payroll teams (Yankees, Red Sox, etc.), you pretty much know whether your team has a shot at the postseason about halfway through the season. Although the long regular season provides a nice sample size for determining the best teams, it can ruin fan interest in most other baseball towns when the realization that you’re rooting for a lame-duck squad sets in.
NHL—Don’t change it at all. It works and it’s fair.
Let the debate begin!