Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Building the Perfect League Structure

"The real season doesn't start until the playoffs" This has been said by countless players, fans, and media type about most sports.  Yes the playoffs matter the most, but this statement condemn the leagues themselves.  The regular season should matter, but unfortunately this is not the case in some professional leagues. Here are the current playoff systems in the major sports leagues and my suggestions to improve them.

Now: 82 game season, 30 Teams, 2 Conferences of 15, Top 8 in each conference make the post season.

It's hard to argue that the regular season matters all that much for probably 8 teams a year that could walk their way into the postseason.  Sure there are team that's are fighting at the end of the season to be a 7 or 8 seed, but how often does a 7 or 8 seed make it past the second round.  Cinderella does not exist in the NBA.  So many teams make the post season, so the interest doesn't really wane as much in some cities.  Or at least that's the NBA theory and it's short sighted.  Fans want to watch games that matter and few ultimately do in the NBA.  So you may have already tuned the league out all together. Gate receipts are important, but TV is where money is for the league.  Why would someone tune in to watch the Heat and Nets play 4 times a year?   Yes, the NBA has a bad reputation because of a perceived lack of effort and lack of defense but if the games matter more I would think the play would pick up.  You could also reward teams for finishing 9 vs. 10 in the league with monetary bonuses.

It will never happen proposal : Do away with conferences, play 58 games (each team home and away once)
8 Teams make the postseason. Every series is a best of 3.  1vs8 and so on. Same home court advantage rules apply.

Now: Same as NBA across the board, except silly shootouts to break ties.  84 Games instead of 82 though.

Hockey is probably most random for determining outcomes.  I would guess that in hockey more than any other sport, the team that deserves to win does not.  How often do you see a team doubled in shots and scoring chances and lose?  Usually its because of a deflection or something fluky too.  This makes it hard to determine a proper champion and the Stanley Cup playoffs rarely go according to script.

It will never happen:  I know I know the Stanley Cup playoffs are perfect, but they render the regular season virtually useless.  I'm in favor of keeping series at 7 games and cutting the playoff teams to 12 incorporating byes for top teams, or simply dropping to 8 teams. 

32 Teams with 12 making the playoffs, 16 game regular season for now

The NFL playoff system is one of the better ones but no playoff system is perfect year in and year out.  Sometimes the most deserving team is not going to win, but that is what makes sports interesting I suppose.  Is it really fair that the Giants beat a previously undefeated Patriots team to win the Super Bowl despite having lost to them at home in the regular season? To me it feels wrong no matter how yummy Belichick's tears taste.  The Giants still did the impossible and you have to give them a ton of credit. 

The bye structure for the playoffs work well.  The best teams are appropriately rewarded with a an easier path to the Super Bowl and a home playoff game against the a opponent based on seeding.  The only issue I have with the NFL playoffs are guaranteeing a playoff spot to a 4-team division.  Divisions should probably be larger but its hard to do that evenly with 32 teams.  So instead I would like to see the there not be an automatic births and home playoff game for divisional winners.  It would seem cold not to allow a divisional winner into the playoffs but the Seahawks getting in at 7-9 can't happen.  You also have to question the point of divisions when the Raiders can run the table (6-0) in the division and not make the playoffs.  Perhaps I can concede that the divisions remain in tact to protect some rivalries but perhaps you are not guaranteed the post season for winning your division.  Finish with a winning record or watch someone else take your place.

162 games, 30 teams, 8 make the playoffs

Some people on this blog would say the baseball playoff are perfect.  It is true that it works well but I terrified of the prospect of the playoffs getting expanded.  This would further harm the integrity of the regular season.  I am not even a fan of the Wild Card but I can deal with it.  The marathon season in baseball is a thing of beauty and I'd hate to see it harmed by more teams polluting the post season.  I want it to be a big deal when the Yankees and Red Sox are fighting for the post season.  Expanded playoffs would farther guarantee their appearance.  It could also mean that a red hot team could pick off the team with the best record in baseball in round 1.  The league season is long enough to decide who the best teams are so I prefer them to be exclusive.  Baseball feels different in the postseason because your weaknesses are exposed (usually pitching).  Thoughts on if this is a good thing?

College Basketball

345 Teams, 68 make Tournament

The ever expanding NCAA Tournament will continue to be fun but for the elite teams the regular season becomes more and more meaningless.  Some of the elite teams can get bounced from the tournament making them feel like they have accomplished little on the season.  This is often harsh, but it makes the tournament exciting to the casual viewers of the sport.  While the NCAA tournament is insane and the best team may not always win, the champion is always deserving for having marched through 6 straight games victorious.

NCAA Football
12 Games + Conference Title Game, BCS Title Game

This is a playoff system that people can't stand. To hell with you casual fan.  The BCS is far from perfect.  The old bowl alliance may be better still, but the bottom line is every week in the season matters right now.   When actually determining a National Champion, how often does the best team win it? Most of the time? Say 2 out of 3? Can we at least agree that this is on par with other sports if not better. Does anyone think the Giants were the best team this past season? But yet they won the World Series.  How bout the 2006 Cardinals? The majority does not argue who wins professional sports titles because there is a playoff, so the winner of said playoff must be the best.  Bullocks.  Muckrakers like Dan Wetzel can bitch all they want and drum up controversy for book sales and to further their careers but a 16 team playoff with all league champions is dumber than any playoff, in any league. 

The BCS can be improved upon though.  If I said otherwise I would be as big a dolt as the people that argue for a 16 team playoff.  I argue against a playoff in college football because I know that when it does come, it will bastardize the regular season and be as poorly constructed as everything other playoff system in America.  However, here is my official endorsement for you college football playoff to be constructed and never changed.

6 teams make the post season. #1 and #2 receive a bye. #3 hosts #6 and #4 hosts #5.  The championship game is at the Rose Bowl and it never rotates to an indoor NFL stadium.  Neutral bowl sight games deep in the south get shot straight to hell.  Ohio Stadium hosts a game in December and the Florida Gators will freeze because the Buckeyes earned that home game in the regular season.

This year's system
#6 Ohio State @ #3 TCU
#5 Stanford @ #4 Wisconsin
#1 Auburn and #2 Oregon receive byes.  (This idea is not my own, it was created by MGoblog.com)

In this system marquee games have meaning, unlike the annual Orange Bowl match up.  The BCS essentially dies but the bowl system remains in place and bowl match ups are just as meaningful or meaningless as before.  


The biggest problem with professional sports organizations and the NCAA (if you think there is difference)  is that they crave the casual fan.  The casual fan is where the money is made.  Dumbing down regular seasons and banking on explosive TV contracts for post season is something that has been picking up steam for years.  This is always going to harm the integrity of the game.  I think it harms the long term viability of the leagues but that's based on nothing.

No playoff system is perfect year in and year out.  Some years the BCS gets the title game right, like this year.  Some years its hard to say who deserves to go over who.  The NCAA Basketball Tournament is fun, but makes the regular season meaningless for elite teams because does it really matter if your a 3 or 4 seed.  The NBA and NHL playoffs are too long and too drawn out because too many teams make the playoffs.  MLB and the NFL work pretty well but could use a few tweaks or at least could be stopped from getting out of hand.  It has been touched on before but I love the idea of English Premier League Soccer where you play each team once home and away, team with the best record at year end wins it.  This isn't always perfect either if the second place team sweeps the first place team it feels cheapened.  The reality is no playoff system will be perfect year in and year out.

In the interest of fairness, I think most of us would like to see the best team win the title.  The most deserving team should win it all and it should be clear.  The regular season should matter and you should be rewarded for finishing atop the standings in the regular season.  Playoffs should be exclusive and it should be a big deal when you reach them.  The teams that reach the playoffs should all feel they have a legitimate chance to beat anyone and win the title. 


  1. That only really works for the Premier League because there is another, higher goal in the Champions League.

    The ideal with the NFL is that because it is such a short season, the most deserving teams typically make it (with the exception of this year's seahawks).

    The biggest thing that scares me is the idea of adding one wild card to each league in baseball and having a wild card round. The integrity of the 162-game season is severely weakened when, like this year, a second place team has to face a third place team, to be the wild card representative in the AL or NL DS.

  2. I agree the Premier League structure doesn't work for the NFL, I think it could work for the NHL and NBA though. It shortens the season to a reasonably length if nothing else.

    MLB's system works well and I would hate to see them add more teams for the reasons you suggested.