Rethinking the Playoff Selection and seeding process in pro sports


Keith R. Thompson,

January 2008

During the NFL’s 2007 regular season the Cleveland Browns shocked everyone--except maybe themselves--by winning 10 games, the highest single-season victory total for the ‘new’ Cleveland Browns franchise that was established under Al Lerner in 1999, and the most for a Browns team since 1994. However, for all that accomplishment the Browns narrowly missed making the playoffs from the AFC. Nevertheless, another team that had fewer wins than them – the Washington Redskins – managed to make the playoffs despite winning only 9 games. Why? Because the Redskins competed in the less-competitive NFC (arguably the weaker conference in the NFL these days). To further ‘rub salt in the Browns’ wounds’ the Playoff ‘dis’ represented the third time since the eight-Division format was established in 2002 that a ten-win team failed to make the playoffs, but the first time since 1991 that a ten-win team failed to make the playoffs from one conference while a team with fewer wins from the other conference did. That year (in 1991) three teams ended the season with 10 wins and 6 losses in the NFC and were battling for the final playoff spot (the Eagles, Falcons & 49ers), while the 8-8 Jets made it from the AFC. Even when the Browns play well they can’t seem to get any love from the League.

The NFL isn’t the only sport where these anomalies tend to occur. During the NBA over the past seven seasons we have seen two occasions where a team with a winning or .500 record from one conference failed to make the playoffs while sub.500 teams from the other conference have been promoted to postseason play. This occurred in 2004 and 2006. In 2004 the NY Knicks went 39-43 and the Boston Celtics went 36-46 in the East but both still made the playoffs, while in the West the Utah Jazz went 42-40 and the Portland Trailblazers went 41-41 but both still missed the playoffs.

This anomaly has also occurred in Major League Baseball and the NHL. Since 2003 in the MLB we’ve seen 3 occasions where Wild-Card teams with a better record from the American League lose out in their bid to make the playoffs to fewer win non-Division-winning teams from the National League. This occurred in 2003 (Seattle Mariners with 93 wins missed the postseason but had a better record than the NL Wild-Card winners the Florida Marlins with 91 wins); 2005 (Cleveland Indians with 93 wins missed the postseason but had a better record than the NL Wild-Card winners the Houston Astros with 89 wins) & 2006 (the Chicago White Sox with 90 wins and the LA Angels with 89 wins had better records than the NL Wild-Card champions LA Dodgers with 88 wins).

Finally, in the NHL we’ve seen three occasions since 2001 where a team with fewer points in one conference make the playoffs over a team with more points in the other conference (2001, 2002 and 2007). But is this right? And why is it allowed to continue?

The four major sports leagues (MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL) all promote teams to the playoffs based on their performance within their respective leagues or conferences. Therefore the top-four-wins teams in each league within the MLB move on to the playoffs, irrespective of whether one of those teams did poorer than another team from the other league that failed to make the playoffs. The same holds for the top-six-wins teams in each conference of the NFL, and the top-eight teams in each conference in the NBA & NHL. This strategy made sense in the past when there was no interleague play. In that scenario the top teams in each league were independent of each other since there were no common opponents to judge them against. However, with the advent of interleague play in the MLB, and inter-conference competition within the NBA, NFL & NHL the reason for now arbitrarily selecting playoff spots based on those conference standings now makes no sense.

Consider these facts:

 LEAGUE

 Total Games

Inter-league / Conference Games

 % of total games

NBA

82

30

37%

NFL

16

4

25%

NHL

82

10

12%

MLB

162

15 – 18*

9% - 11%

*AL teams play 18 interleague games since they have only 14 teams within the league, while the NL plays about 15 interleague games since they have 16 teams.

From the table above we see that NBA teams play 30 (37%) of their games against non-conference opponents, while NFL teams play 25% of their games against non-conference opponents. Given these very high ratios why then do the respective leagues limit the playoff selection only to conference teams. The non-conference games matter in the standings therefore, shouldn’t they also matter when playoff selections are being made.

In the MLB and NHL given that only between 9 and 12% of games are against non-conference/league opponents it is understandable that those leagues continue to determine playoff selection based on conference/league standings. However, the NBA and NFL need to reconsider their current policies.

In fact, both the NBA and NFL could adopt a playoff strategy which provides automatic promotion only to the Division winners, then assign the remaining ten and four playoff spots within each league respectively to the teams with the best winning records irrespective of conference. Playoff seeding should also be based on overall league standings, instead of only conference standings.

This playoff strategy could also potentially allow the NFL to add two additional teams to the playoff picture (making it 14) and thereby only limit the first-round bye to the top teams within each conference, instead of the current policy of four teams receiving byes.

A variant of this playoff strategy is currently being practiced by the youngest of the pro leagues in North America, Major League Soccer. The MLS provides an automatic promotion to the playoffs only to the top two teams within each conference. After that playoff selection is open to the best teams remaining in the league, irrespective of conference.

During the current 2007/08 NBA season two teams from the Eastern conference (the Atlanta Hawks and the New Jersey Nets) are at least 6 games under .500 but are still holding onto playoff spots, while there are two teams (Portland Trailblazers and Houston Rockets) from the stronger Western conference that are at least 5 games over .500 but are on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Unless the current format is changed two very deserved teams will be at home watching the playoffs, while two mediocre ones will be participating. What a grave injustice.

The 2007 Cleveland Browns were an inspiration to many for the manner in which they competed during the regular season. Maybe now they can also provide another inspiration, that of radically overhauling the current playoff selection process which tends to penalize the conference with the better teams.

2008 PER Sports, Inc.

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