Wednesday, April 02, 2008

What is the goal of a playoff format?

Frank Deford has become a rather pedestrian sports commentator: I realized this once he wrote and spoke an essay about baseball caps and included this passage:

"I don't understand, though, why so many people wear baseball caps backwards. This doesn't keep the sun out of your eyes, and the gap in the cap looks foolish on your forehead. Of course, a few young knuckleheads even wear baseball caps sort of sideways. Whatever."

This complaint about "young knuckleheads" that wear their caps backwards or sideways is another reminder that traditional media commentators need not criticize bloggers too much; there are plenty of completely uninsightful writers among their own ranks.

Today on NPR, Deford talked about the NBA playoffs. He rightfully lamented the good Western Conference teams that will miss the playoffs and the bad Eastern Conference teams that will make the playoffs. But Deford also said the NBA is silly to model its playoff format after baseball with a seven game series:

"In basketball and hockey, though, a series becomes stultifyingly reminiscent of what Edna St. Vincent Millay said: 'It's not true that life is one damn thing after another — it's one damn thing over and over.'

"The NBA should start its playoffs with Olympic-style round robins in the various divisions, finishing up with a knockout Final Four, just like the colleges do. Yes, it would mean sacrificing several home gates, but when elimination is so imminent, when it's one game and out, as it is in the NFL, the World Cup, the Olympics, it concentrates the mind of the fan. An NBA Final Four would bring far more attention and drama — and ultimately more television money — to the NBA than its current drawn-out Edna St. Vincent Millay series. Less really can be more."

I think Deford is hitting on a key question: what is the goal of a playoff format?

We generally think the goal of a playoff format should be to determine the best team. In basketball, a seven game series is the best way to determine the best team. In basketball, an inferior team can have a hot shooting night and knock off a cold shooting superior team in one game. Over seven games, though, the better team is usually going to win more times than lose. At the end of the NBA playoffs, you can feel much more confident that the best team has won than you can in a one-and-done tournament.

Another goal of of a playoff format (and this is the goal Deford is concerned about) is raising and maintaining fan interest and excitement. The NCAA basketball tournaments do this successfully--the one-and-done brackets get a lot of people paying attention. This format also brings a lot of upsets, which also seem to bring a lot of fan attention. This format is not really the best way to determine the best game, however, as evidenced by all the "Cinderella" upsets.

Yet another goal of a playoff format is to make money. The NBA's drawn out format does this too: there are more games to sell tickets for, and even if TV ratings for particular games are lower, there are more of them, and that means more money.

These three goals of a playoff format needn't always contradict one another, but they sometimes do. For example, a lot of fans complain about the Bowl system for NCAA football. Indeed, college football does not have the best way to determine the best team: a playoff system would do a better job. But critics of the Bowl system miss out on the other two goals. The Bowl games bring in a lot of money, and they actually probably maintain a broader fan interest than a playoff format would do. A lot of college football fans are devoted to one particular team: if that team isn't playing, those fans might not care. A Bowl system that doesn't limit the postseason to four or eight or 16 teams can keep a lot of those fans paying attention (and spending money).

I like the NBA's seven game series. A series provides bigger narratives than a single game can provide, and a series does a better job of determining the better team than a single game can.

But Deford does have a point: it's stupid that bad teams make the playoffs and good teams can miss the playoffs based on conferences. The World Series and the Super Bowl have a traditional reason to pit the best teams from two leagues. Even after interleague play, the American League and the National League are two distinct leagues. The Super Bowl started as a game between the best teams from the AFL and the NFL, so there's a reason to continue that tradition, too. But in the NBA, every team in the Western Conference plays every team in the Eastern Conference every year. There's not that much special about seeing the best of the West and the East play at the end: it would be better to see the best teams. Perhaps in the past it made sense to do playoffs regionally because of the difficulties of travel, but that doesn't seem to be a concern anymore.

I don't usually worry about one side of a league (The AFC, the Western Conference, the American League) being dominatingly superior to the other side; these things are cyclical and will come around naturally. But the NBA really has no historical reason to separate its playoff format so distinctly into two sides.

So by all means, reform the NBA playoffs if you wish: it sucks that either Dallas, Denver, or Golden State, very good and very fun teams, could miss the playoffs. But don't take away our seven game series: they provide a meaningful story, and they show us a worthy champion.


  1. Anonymous12:43 PM

    Actually the best way to find out which team is the greatest would be to have all of the teams play each other, maybe even more than once, and see who ends up with the most wins. Oh, wait...

    The series format does more to alienate the fans of a team who is not involved in that series, because the decisiveness is spread out among all the games. I'm not an NBA fan, but I would be inclined to watch the playoff games if each one held the promise of finality for one team. But watching 12 or more hours of basketball that may or may not end up influencing the playoff outcome for teams I don't really care about is something I am not going to do.

  2. Anonymous8:50 AM

    Good post, but I think you've got it precisely backwards on college football.

    A well-conceived college football playoff would be a license to print money and would draw fan interest on a level with March Madness. On both those counts, it would absolutely destroy the current system. Granted, that's just speculation, but I'm pretty confident about it.

    However, the current system probably does a better job of determining the best team. While it might exclude teams that probably shouldn't be excluded, it at least guarantees that the champ won't be a 3-loss team that got hot at the right time.

    Anyway, that's a minor quibble. You've done a nice job of outlining the tradeoffs involved. I wish I could remember where I read this, so I could give proper credit, but I read somewhere a long time ago that in a given sport/season, there is only a finite amount of excitement/interest possible. Unless you do something ridiculous, tweaking the playoff format doesn't add or subtract exceitement; it merely rearranges it.

    It's certainly true that game one of an NBA playoff series isn't as exciting as an elimination UNC/Kansas game or an AFC championship game, but the seven (or however many) games combined do provide as much excitement IMO.

    A single baseball game in June can't possibly be 1% as meaningful as an October matchup of two top-five college football teams, but the accumulated excitement of lots and lots of semi-important regular season baseball games is equivalent to the excitement generated by the very few truly huge college football matchups in a season (only if you like baseball as much as you like college football, of course).

    A one-and-done NBA playoff system would be intense, but I have to disagree with those who think there's less total drama in a collection of 7-game series. There is quite a bit at stake in game 3 of a 1-1 series. Yes, some series end up being 4-1 snoozers, but some one-and-done games in college football, college basketball, and the NFL, end up being over in the first quarter too.

    I don't see how any basketball fan can't be looking forward to this year's Western playoffs. Two important games between good teams every night for a month! The problem (if there is one) with the NBA's system isn't that the playoffs don't have enough drama, it's that is that the playoffs have stolen a little bit of drama from the regular season.

    Similarly, as great as March Madness is, it renders a February Duke/UNC game pretty meaningless. And as frustrating as the BCS can be, it does essentially create a few hyper-exciting elimination playoff games throughout the season.