Evaluating Playoff Formats in the Big 4

by Conway West 1.7.15

A couple weeks ago, my colleague JD Cam published an article reevaluating the college football playoff system. As Tony Kornheiser once wrote, “College Football would be the most popular sport in the United States if the NCAA didn’t get in the way.”

While college football has revamped its postseason format, most professional sports ranks are much, much slower to amend their processes. Baseball has made 4 changes (with only 3 involving number of teams) to the postseason format in 114 years. The NFL, king of innovation if it makes an extra buck, was met with vehement disapproval when they attempted to expand their playoff system (although playoff expansion now seems inevitable ahead of the 2015/16 season). The NHL and NBA have made only minor changes recently.

This does not mean the playoff formats all fit their sport perfectly. When I think about the effectiveness of a playoff format, I think of two main variables:

  • Adequacy of transition from regular season: Does the regular season do a good job of demonstrating the quality of the teams in consideration? Does it separate out the good/bad while still remaining vital and engaging? Do the teams that make the postseason deserve to be there?
  • Pace and purpose: Does the best team usually win? Does the format allow for variability while moving efficiently enough to not be redundant? Does every team have a chance to win it all? Should they?

Winning percentage standard deviation comes up big on this topic for me. Reasoning is explained here, although the article focuses on competitive balance. For my study, I care about standard deviation only because I DO care about random variation. The NFL’s shorter season results in higher deviation than MLB’s, for instance, but this proves my point that the best teams don’t always make the postseason.

Sport: NBA

System: 30 teams play 82 regular season games, to determine 3 division winners plus 5 wild cards in each conference. Playoffs consist of 4 rounds of 7-game series.

Pros: Long playoffs and season ensure little random variation in winners.

Cons: Both season and playoffs drag on; many inferior teams make the playoffs.

Basketball is a graceful, athletic game, but also a grueling one. While not at the same taxing level as football, basketball takes a lot out of the athletes who play, and is hard to maintain energy and consistency over the 8 month season. Players (sometimes even whole teams) take nights off, and this results in diminished product in the regular season. All 82 games just don’t matter.

A single basketball game does a decent job at showing the best and worst teams each game. This is supported by the standard deviation of win percentage: .254 is by far largest of any of the sports. This means the bad teams are bad, but they also show they are bad every night. The teams that make the playoffs would rise to the top in far fewer than 82 games.

The playoffs for the NBA are far too long as well. As I said, the best team typically wins in basketball, which is supported by the number of times upsets occur in the playoffs, as well as the distribution of championships within the sport. With each of those figures being so low, there is no need for 7 game series every round of the playoffs. Once again, this diminishes the product. It does make for higher profit, and so the 3 month NBA playoff marathon is here to stay. Another issue is the amount of teams that make the playoffs: 16 of 30 teams is a whole lot, and the bottom 2-3 teams usually aren’t very good. This has been made worse by the disparity of the conferences in the past decade or so. With the West being so much better than the East, there is an undeserving team or two that makes the playoffs in the east. Conversely, the west is loaded and has a couple good teams missing out. Look at last season for a real case of that.

Solution: have the NBA season start at Christmas, run 60 games, and cut the first two rounds of the postseason to best of 5, at the least. Another possibility is modeling the NFL postseason, giving top teams byes from the first round, and cut the number of qualifying teams in each conference to 6 or 7. Also, get rid of conferences for playoffs and have playoff qualification only determined by best record.

Sport: NFL

System: 32 teams play 16 games, which determine 4 division winners and 2 wild cards in each conference. 4 rounds of single elimination. Top 2 qualifiers in each conference get first round bye.

Pros: Short, exciting season; fast playoffs; excellent playoff size (12 of 32 teams make playoffs); incentive for regular season performance in playoffs (home-field advantage, first-round bye).

Cons: The best teams don’t always make the postseason; division winners can be inferior due to scheduling anomalies; short season leads to higher random variation.

The NFL’s regular season, as compared to basketball, is far too short. It does not get the best 12 teams into the playoffs every year, by virtue of random variation. But, given the nature of the sport, this isn’t a bad thing: people like football for the “Any Given Sunday” approach. It is fun to think that your team has a decent shot every year. With that being said, the recent (and not so recent) discoveries of health risks make it ignorant to write convincingly that football should expand its regular season in order to better justify the entrants to postseason. It just isn’t worth the extra health costs (even though the league will keep trying).

Besides the lack of certainty that the best teams make it into the playoffs, the NFL postseason is about as close to perfect as one could hope, and perfect for the nature of the game. Football is meant to be a game where one game matters a lot (whereas the opposite is true for a sport like baseball). The NFL postseason moves fast (4-5 weeks), has a perfect amount of teams (12 feels right), and ends with a wonderful blend of variability and predictability (the best teams “usually win”, but not anywhere close to “always win”). My personal favorite part is that NFL postseason creates incentives for in-season performance: a bye-week in the postseason can be immensely valuable, and while some debate the effectiveness of the bye-week incentive, data supports that the bye week matters.

Does the NFL have the best playoff format?

Does the NFL have the best playoff format?

Some will also complain that poor division winners can host playoff games (like the Panthers with 7 wins this year.) This is a valid concern, and one that could easily be fixed: take away the division winners and just have the best 6 records make the postseason from each conference. But, due to the method of scheduling the NFL uses, I believe this could unfairly reward teams who are fortunate enough to play easy schedules. A 6-win division winner is not ideal, but they did win their division, which should be viewed in the same manner as a conference winner in the NCAA Basketball tournament.

Possible Solution to format: Create a world where football is unquestionably safe from long-term crippling effects. Then, expand the regular season to 20 games. The NFLs proposed changes include expanding Wild-Card Weekend with an additional two teams and giving only the top seed in each conference a bye and having the rest play seeded match-ups.

Sport: NHL

System: 30 teams play 82 regular season games, to determine top 3 in each division plus 2 wild cards in each conference (8 teams/conference). Playoffs consist of 4 rounds of 7-game series.

Pros: Long season ensures little random variation in qualifiers; best trophy in sports

Cons: both season and playoffs drag on, and many inferior teams make the playoffs; unbalanced conferences create unequal opportunities to make playoffs.

Hockey has a similar issue to NBA – it is the only sport with a longer season in terms of calendar days between the beginning and end of season. It also has a similarly long playoff format. Hockey is also a physically taxing game, and the long season takes its toll on the players – Hockey players deal with a high injury rate, with some of the data suggesting its games are the most dangerous when considering the length of season hockey players endure. Hockey players also have the second-highest concussion rate out of all sports, once again exacerbated by the frequency of games in a season. The applicability of this data in the playoff conversation is that hockey teams vary greatly as the year progresses, thus parity is huge in the league. It also speaks to the necessity of the entire hockey season – if the NFL season shouldn’t be at 20 games for injury concerns, how can we justify hockey’s 82 games?

Playoff Meme

In addition to roster turnover creating parity, the sport itself has high variability at the professional level. Only baseball has higher playoff parity, which speaks to the nature of hockey that the best team doesn’t always win. This data may support the idea that while the regular season is too long, but the already long hockey playoffs are perhaps too short to determine the true deserved winner. This contradiction, in my opinion, lies at the center of the waning interest for hockey in North America.

Possible Solution to format: Since hockey is losing interest from the general public, I propose something wacky altogether for their playoff format. First, balance the two conferences, which were realigned and unbalanced just 2 years ago. Then, do a drastically shorter regular season. Maybe create a huge, 24 team playoff, with convoluted bye week schemes and seeding. Or, go back to what Lord Stanley wanted and have challenge games for the cup.

Sport: MLB

System: 30 teams play 162 regular season games to determine 3 division winners, plus 2 wild cards in each league (conference). 2 Wild cards play a one-game series, followed by 5, 7, and 7 games for the next series.

Pros: Long season eliminates outliers from postseason contention; Addition of second wild card creates strong incentive for winning division, leading to more meaningful games

Cons: Success in postseason has very little correlation to success in postseason; long season can lose casual fan.

Let me first say that I love MLB’s regular season. While it may not be the most vital nor engaging, I think it is incredibly valuable to have such a huge sample size, and generally leads to a playoff field that deserves it – if you are not in the top 5 in each league after 162 games, no length of season should save you. The addition of the second wild card is huge for the regular season in the sport – no sport has a higher percentage of meaningful games in the regular season.

What is gained in the regular season, though, may be lost in the postseason. Postseason parity in baseball makes the playoffs a different sport. The huge increase in off days means that one pitcher has a much larger effect (see Madison Bumgarner in 2014), and a dominant bullpen of 2-4 arms is more valuable (see Kansas City Royals, 2014). Managers have to manage games differently, and roster needs are different. This is fun – it makes each game of the MLB playoffs feel more like the Super Bowl – but can punish teams built for regular season success. Additionally, the 1-game wild card playoff feels strange for baseball. It brings drama but baseball is a game of winning series, not individual games – what could be more deflating than losing a one game playoff to determine true post-season entry after having an excellent 162 game record.

In addition to the game frequency, weather becomes a huge factor on the edges of the baseball season. Expanding the playoffs is not an option since no one likes the idea of playing baseball in snow. Therefore, whatever additions to the current structure that is proposed (3 -game wild card playoff) should be met with far less off days in the postseason.

Solution: Cut the regular season to 145-150 games. Expand playoffs to be a 3/7/7/7 format, with less off days between.


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