Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Playoff Series: Five Games Or Seven? (Or Something Else?)

The MLB playoffs are in full swing. One division series has already wrapped up, and two more could come to an end tonight. It seems like it was just last Friday that these playoff series started. It begs the question, is a five-game series appropriate for the first round of baseball playoffs? Would seven games be better? And furthermore, are seven-game first-round series the best choice for other sports leagues?

Here's a look at the playoff structures for the major sports leagues, minus all the ESPN hyperbole and idiocy that you're used to. Keep in mind, these comments focus mainly on first-round series, not later rounds.

MLB - Five-games is perfect for the first round of the Major League Baseball playoffs.  While many fans complain that five games is too short given the context of a 162 season, I will contend that playoff teams are, for the most part, very close together in terms of skills. Thus, adding a few more games to such a small sample set won't necessarily have a big impact in ensuring that the "right" team wins.

NBA - The NBA changed from a five-game first-round to a seven-game one in 2003, but it would do well to go back to the old model. Since the inception of the seven game series, only 11 of 72 first-round series (15%) have gone to a game-seven. Shrink the sample size to the last 2 years, when parody in the NBA has continued to diminish, and we see only 1 of 16 series going to seven games. It simply isn't worth playing into late June when everyone knows who will win the first round series anyway.

NHL - First round series in the NHL are appropriately seven-games long. The NHL needs to make up for its lack of exposure during the regular season with exciting playoff series. Every year, it seems, we get very compelling seven-game series, with 8-seeds challenging 1-seeds and intense dogfights in the 4v5 playoff.

NFL - The NFL playoffs are perfect, with one caveat: division-winners should not be guaranteed home field advantage in the first round. The Seahawks don't deserve to benefit from the 12th man just because no one on the west coast has figured out how to play football yet.

MLS - Soccer playoffs are interesting. The MLS receives lots of criticism because - let's face it - American soccer is so amazingly mediocre. But the aggregate format (one home game, one away game, highest total score wins) is a very compelling scenario. It's almost like watching one "super game." The MLS was right to borrow this format from European soccer, but was also wise to abolish the use of "road goals" as the tiebreaker. That's something American fans simply could not stand for.

NCAA Football - Get it? What a riot.

1 comment:

  1. I think win percentages are pretty telling here. The best and worst teams in the MLB playoffs are separated by a 7% difference in win percentage, and the difference in hockey is about 5%. Conversely, football and basketball are right around 30%. The closer these percentages, the longer the series needs to be for the better team to win. Basketball could definitely shorten its first round series, but I'd like to see baseball lengthen the division series to 7 games (it'll be quick given that they can play on consecutive days).