How to Implement a New Playoff Format

How to Implement a New Playoff Format

All sports organizations are only as strong as the loyalty of their fan bases. Now, that may seem like a stretch of a claim, but truly - the fans are the heartbeat and partial reason behind why athletes do what they do. Fans bring their energy, money (ticket sales, merchandise, donations, etc.), and excitement to the game. Fans are also known as the "sixth man," as they can influence the way the game goes down.

One way sports organizations and league owners can double down on this fan excitement and draw more foot traffic is by changing the way how the postseason starts. A more innovative and unpredictable playoff format can pique media interest, create momentum for teams and fans to build upon between season and postseason gameplay, and bring in more revenue for the league.

A prime example of such playoff tournament changes is in the NBA. During the 2019-2020 season, the NBA initially implemented an NBA play-in tournament as a COVID-19 precaution. Three seasons later, they still use the play-in tournament in NBA games, and it doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

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Factors to consider when implementing a new playoff format

1. Fairness and competitiveness

One of the important elements of a playoff format that league managers need to consider is the level of competition and fairness that results from adjusting the playoff structure. 

The main goal of any playoff bracket or schedule is to ensure that the best two teams in the league are competing for the final playoff spot as the playoff series champions.

2. Logistics & scheduling

Creating and maintaining a league season schedule can get very cumbersome and tricky - fast, especially if you intend to create a custom playoff format or unique league match-up schedule. Entrusting your league season planning to a professional third-party service like Diamond Scheduler ensures that there are no pitfalls, overlaps, or gaps in your schedule for a smooth season. Freeing up your time - and brain space - from creating a consistent schedule frees you up for the more important things: team performance, training, and the playoffs.

NBA fans bring excitment to the game

3. Fan and player feedback

Even with the new NBA play-in tournament games, there has been a mixed bag of feedback from fans, players, coaches, and stakeholders in the NBA. For many professional sports organizations, the satisfaction of the fan base is just as important as the performance of the team's players. This could be for a wide range of reasons. For example, fans make up the majority of sales and revenue generation, they bring the electricity into the stadiums and arenas that enhance player performance, which shows the importance of having fans that are on board with a league's regulations and procedures.

One of the perks of sports fans is that they often aren't shy about sharing their two cents when it comes to disagreeing with certain rules, calls, and decisions. It's one of the characteristics of the sports fan demographic that makes watching games exciting and brings out the passion that drives the sports entertainment industry. League owners should leverage the feedback from fans and implement their ideas into creating a new playoff format.

4. Revenue potential

The format of any playoff tournament and the number of games that comprise the tournament directly impacts the league's revenue potential. A few factors during the tournament schedule that league owners should consider include the number of seats sold, the number of fans making transactions during the postseason schedule, the number of postseason media sponsors, and live events that can boost a league's bottom line. League owners can also increase pricing during the postseason for fans and media partners because of the limited number of games being aired on TV and the limited number of in-game seats available.

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The recent NBA play-in tournament's stats show an increase in viewership by 14% compared to last season. A prime example is the Los Angeles Lakers-Minnesota Timberwolves play-in match-up, which averaged 3.47 million viewers, the second-largest TV audience in the play-in three-year history. League owners can present these stats to media partners and team owners to justify the increase in pricing for sponsorships/partnerships, advertisements, and tickets.

Case studies of successful playoff format changes

1. NBA play-In tournament

Relatively new to the NBA, The NBA play-in tournament occurs between the 82-game regular season and the postseason playoff games. This tournament determines the final four teams that enter the NBA playoffs through a series of three play-in games.

According to the play-in structure, the seventh through tenth-ranked teams from both the Eastern Conference and Western Conference face off for the final four spots in the NBA playoffs. The higher seeds in each conference are, of course, awarded with home-court advantage.

In each conference, the ninth and tenth-ranked teams play in one game: a single elimination game. The loser is then removed from the play-in tournament. Meanwhile, the seventh and eighth-ranked teams in the conference play each other, with the winner of that play in the game swiping the seventh-seed position in the NBA playoffs. The loser of that game and the winner of the single elimination game then duke it out for the eighth seed spot, with the winner taking the final seat in the playoff tournament with a chance to win the NBA finals.

For the 2023 NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks have reserved the No. 7 seed spots, while the Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat have taken the No. 8 seed seats. These seventh and eighth seeds may not have had automatic entry into the 2023 NBA playoffs, but that almost makes these upcoming first-round match-ups more exciting, especially after a play-in game. We are excited to see how the NBA finals play out this season.

2. MLB wildcard playoffs

In previous years, the playoff format for the MLB World Series was a tournament with the finalists playing 15 games in 29 days. The transition from this format to the new wildcard playoff format has players playing up to 15 games in 19 days instead of a 29-day marathon. The new wildcard format seems to put lower seed teams at a disadvantage, while top seeds are being put in an advantageous position. To some degree, this makes sense in rewarding top-seed teams with a better playoff schedule. To another degree, this seems to play into the unfairness of the tournament format.

In the MLB, the wildcard teams are the three teams in the American League and National League that have qualified for postseason gameplay, even though they did not win their division. The format follows a best-of-five series in a 2-2-1 format with a home-field advantage awarded to the higher seed team. For managers in the MLB, the trick then becomes setting up your team (pitchers most notably) to perform well when transitioning from the wildcard series to the division series - especially with how close games are in the 19-day baseball marathon.

3. NHL conference realignment and divisional playoffs

In 2021 the NHL also experienced a new playoff format and division realignment. For starters, the NHL renamed and realigned into four divisions: the Honda West Division, the Scotia North Division, the Discover Central Division, and the MassMutual East Division.

The realignment meant teams only played within their respective divisions eight times each for a total of a 56-game regular season. This new realignment also resulted in the separation of the Canadian and American teams. 

The Stanley Cup Playoff format has also been modified. Now, in each division, the No. 4 seed and No. 1 seed teams face off, with the winner advancing into the second round of the playoffs while the No. 2 and No. 3 seed teams do the same. The two winners of the second round of the playoffs then advance to the semi-finals for their next challenge. Each division winner is then re-seeded based on the regular season point total. This format has created the potential for some odd, unpredictable, and exciting Stanley Cup finals.

NHL conference realignment and divisional playoffs

4. NFL wildcard weekend and the Super Bowl

The NFL comprises of 32 teams divided in half between National and American divisions. Within each of the 16-team divisions, there are four regional conferences. Each season, teams play their conference rivals in home and away games with additional match-ups to create their 16-game schedule. Following the regular season, each of the highest-ranking teams in each division, along with the next-best record (the wildcard teams), qualify for the playoffs.

The winners of each division's playoff bracket compete in the largest American sports event in the world: the Super Bowl.

Steps to take when introducing a new playoff format

We have created a quick-reference checklist to get you started on tackling a new playoff format in your league.  Check out our tips below.

1. Analyze your new playoff idea 

Before you start creating a new playoff format, it is helpful to evaluate your current playoff system, its strengths, and weaknesses. What is your reasoning for changing your playoff format?  What are your new objectives or goals in changing the structure of your league playoffs? What issues do you face with your current playoff structure? 

Answering these questions can help you more strategically approach tackling your goals as you build a new playoff structure. 

2. Define your league's new playoff format

As you read above, there are many different formats that you can adopt in your league as you build out your new playoff framework. Some of the factors that may influence which kind of format you decide to use includes the number of teams, the type of sport you are organizing (is it a higher-scoring or lower-scoring sport?), the duration that you expect playoffs to take in the postseason, and the criteria for teams to qualify to enter the playoffs. 

One helpful consideration may be to look at the structure of a professional or premiere league of your respective sport. Professional sports bring in a lot of money, which incurs a lot of research and have already walked through troubleshooting and feedback regarding their individual playoff structures. Piggybacking off of their efforts may be a clear way for you to decide what playoff format is right for your league to follow. 

3. Obtain approval and feedback from key board members

After you have decided and developed the new potential playoff format, it is a good idea to receive feedback from the relevant parties before you launch it to the public. Invite feedback from relevant stakeholders like teams in the league, league officials, and broadcasters. As you collect information and their input, you can make the necessary adjustments and move forward with your playoff format development for the league season.

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4. Implementation of the new format

Now that you have developed, adjusted, and re-developed your playoff format for your sports league this season, it is time to launch. Before the playoffs take place during the postseason, it is crucial that you spend time ensuring that all of the teams and external parties involved understand the new format for playoffs. 

The last thing you need is mass confusion during high-stakes games like the playoffs. Throughout the postseason, you can monitor how well the league has received your playoff structure, troubleshoot any issues that come up, and take notes and adjust before the next season begins.

Frequently asked questions

How can league owners implement a new playoff format?

The playoffs are the most anticipated timeline of any sport, where viewership, competition, and fan bases increase. League owners should ensure their playoffs offers the highest entertainment amongst fans and the industry. If not, the owner should look into changing their playoff format by following the step below 1. Analyze your new playoff system. 

2. Define your league's playoff format. 

3. Obtain approval and feedback from key board members.

4. Implement the new format.

Is the play-in tournament for the NBA playoffs single-elimination?

The play-in tournament comprises three games in each conference, where the No. 9 and No. 10 ranked teams face off in a single-elimination game. Then the No. 7 and No. 8 ranked teams compete in double-elimination games. The two winners of these three games then advance to the first round of NBA playoffs, which adds them to the playoff tournament structure as they strive for the finals.

Who was the NBA play-in tournament winners this year?

In 2023, the Los Angeles Lakers and Atlanta Hawks played in the play-in tournament, swiping the No. 7 seed spots, while the Minnesota Timberwolves and Miami Heat have taken the No. 8 seed places.

How many games are in the NBA play-in tournament?

The tournament has three games for each conference, one single elimination, and a 2-game double elimination.

To recap

There are many implications that alternating or adjusting a playoff schedule has on a league. In the past few years, we have experienced that first-hand with sporting event adjustments made during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Changing things regarding postseason activity and playoff format can create excitement among fans, incentivize higher levels of competition, and bring in more revenue to your league and teams.

Keeping the playoffs in your league unpredictable and exciting is a great way for managers and league owners to discover what kinds of changes can improve foot traffic and explore what kinds of incentives players respond well to while increasing competitiveness and excitement on and off the field.

If you are interested in fiddling around with a new schedule in your organization, consider using Diamond Scheduler as your all-in-one guide to all things sports scheduling and management. 

This tool is incredibly helpful and effective in preventing overlap or gaps in your team schedule while also tracking and providing feedback to team managers. Diamond Scheduler is also compatible with SportsEngine and supports easy import/export functions between the two platforms.

This enables you to spend more time focusing on team performance and morale. Maybe this is the year that you change up the playoff format for your league and change the course of how your game is played for seasons to come.

Thalia Oosthuizen has been writing in a professional capacity for over a decade. Her love for sports has led her down the path of sports writing, where her passion and skills combine. Thalia is a runner, cyclist, and swimmer, and enjoys playing tennis and hockey. Her favorite sports teams include Chelsea F.C. and the Georgian Lions Rugby Club.

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