A playoff in sports (North American professional sports in particular) is a game or series of games played after the regular season is over with the goal of determining a league champion. The championship of a league may be determined by as few as a single playoff between two teams, or by an elimination tournament involving several teams.
Playoffs are normally played between teams that finished well during the regular season. Professional leagues that hold playoffs are usually divided into geographically based groupings of teams, usually called divisions, but sometimes called conferences (but note: sometimes both exist, with teams being grouped into divisions, and divisions in turn into conferences). Generally, during the regular season, teams play more games against opponents that are within their own division than those outside the grouping. The teams that finished in first place within their division at the end of the regular season are eligible to participate in the playoffs. In addition, teams that finished second or even lower in the standings are often added to the tournament; these are known as wild card teams. Some leagues have also held playoffs between teams that were tied for first place, although many leagues, most notably the NFL, instead uses a complicated tie-breaking formula to resolve this situation.
Playoff games have evolved over the years, involving increasing numbers of teams in larger tournaments. This both increases the excitement for fans, and also increases revenues for the league. The notion of a post-season championship in modern professional sports was instituted by professional baseball with its World Series games between the champions of the American League and the National League in 1903. The leagues themselves were not divided into divisions and did not have playoffs unless there was a tie for first place (the team finishing first in the league was said to have 'won the pennant'). Playoffs (known as finals) have been part of the Australian Football League since its inception in 1897.
- 1 Playoffs in the National Basketball Association
- 2 Playoffs in the National Football League
- 3 Playoffs in Major League Baseball
- 4 Playoffs in the National Hockey League
- 5 Playoffs in English football (soccer)
- 6 Playoffs in Australian Rules Football and Australian rugby league
- 7 See also
Playoffs in the National Basketball Association
The present organization known as the National Basketball Association, then called the BAA (Basketball Association of America), had its inaugural season in 1946-1947.
In the current system, eight clubs from each of the league's two conferences qualify for the playoffs, with separate playoff brackets for each conference. In the 2003-04 season, the first-round series were expanded from best-of-5 to best-of-7; all other series have always been best-of-7. In all series, home games alternate between the two teams in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, except for the NBA Finals, in which the format is 2-3-2.
Teams are seeded according to their regular-season record. The three division champions receive the top three seeds, with their ranking based on regular-season record. The remaining teams are seeded strictly by regular-season record.
One quirk in the NBA system is that division champions are not guaranteed home-court advantage at any time in the playoffs, as home-court advantage is decided strictly on regular-season record, without regard to seeding.
Playoffs in the National Football League
The National Football League divided its teams into divisions in 1933 and began holding a single playoff championship game between division winners. In 1950 the NFL absorbed three teams from the rival All-America Football Conference, and the former "Divisions" were now called "Conferences", echoing the college use of that term. In 1967, the NFL expanded and created four divisions under the two conferences, which led to the institution of a larger playoff tournament. After the merger with the American Football League, the NFL began to use a single wild card team in each conference in its playoffs, in order to produce eight contenders out of six divisions; this was later expanded so that more wild card teams could participate.
Major league baseball, recognizing the great success of the NFL's post-season system, also created divisions in each league when it expanded at the end of that decade, leading to its first use of regular post-season playoffs to determine league champions. Further expansion by baseball led to its own adoption of the concept of wild card teams.
In 2002 the NFL added its 32nd team, the Houston Texans, and significantly reshuffled its divisional alignment. The league went from 6 division winners and 6 wild card spots to 8 division winners and only 4 wild card qualifiers.
The winners of each division automatically earn a playoff spot, and the two top non-division winners from each conference also make the playoffs. The top two teams get a first round bye, and the bottom two division winners each play one of the wild-card teams. The winners of the wild-card games then play one of the two bye teams. The winners of these two games go to the conference championships, and the winner of that game plays in the Super Bowl.
Please see NFL playoffs for more information on history and current format of the playoffs.
Playoffs in Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball is the oldest of the major professional sports, dating back to the 1870s. As such, it is steeped in tradition. The final series to determine its champion has been called the "World Series" (originally "World's Championship Series" and then "World's Series") as far back as the National League's contests with the American Association during the 1880s.
Retaining the sanctity of the World Series as a special event (despite the erosion of its specialness since the introduction of interleague play) rather than merely the "final round of playoffs", the major leagues themselves do not use the term "playoffs" for post-season action. MLB has stuck with "____ Series" for each level of its post-season tournament (another term MLB does not use). In the Majors the singular term "playoff" is reserved for the rare situation in which two teams find themselves tied at the end of the regular season and are forced to have a playoff game (or games) to determine which team will advance to the post-season. Thus, in the Majors, a "playoff" is actually part of the regular season and thus can be called a "Pennant playoff". However, the plural term "playoffs" is conventionally used by fans and media to refer to baseball's post-season tournament (and has always been used by Minor league baseball for its own post-season play), so this article will defer to that usage.
Baseball has always been the least generous sport in allowing teams to enter its playoff tournament, and parodoxically so, given that it also has by far the lengthiest season in terms of games (currently 162). In 1903 (skipped 1904) the two modern Major League Baseball leagues began annual post-season play with a one-round system in which the American League team with the best record faced the National League team with the best record in a best-of-7 series (there were a few years it was best-of-9) called the World Series. This single-tiered approach persisted through 1968, even with the expansions of 1961-1962 that made it necessary for 2 teams each year to finish their seasons in ignominious double-digits, as it were, in 10th place.
Adoption of two-round playoff system
By 1969 expansion of the major leagues had made it harder to make the World Series because there were more teams competing for the AL and NL pennants. To remedy this, and imitating the other major sports' long-standing playoff traditions, Major League Baseball split each league into western and eastern divisions, creating more divisions and thus more divisional winners and more playoff contenders... and no worse than a 6th place finish for any team. This created a new round of playoffs, which was dubbed the League Championship Series (LCS), a best-of-5 series. In 1985 the LCS was expanded to a best-of-7 series.
Current playoff system
By 1994, further expansion was making it very hard to make the playoffs again. Major League baseball went through re-alignment again, adding central divisions to each league. Because only allowing divisional winners in the playoffs would make an odd number of playoff teams in each league, three, the league also added wild-cards to each league, again imitating the NFL approach. This system was in place for 1994, but the players' strike cancelled the post-season. The system was realized on the field in 1995. The wild card team would be the team with the best record in each league of all the teams that did not win their division. This doubled the playoff contenders in each league from two to four, and from four to eight teams across baseball. The extra playoff teams meant another elimination round was needed. This new round would become the new first round of the playoffs, the best-of-five, Division Series. This term had first been used for the extra round required in 1981 due to the "split-season" scheduling anomaly following the mid-season players' strike. The three-tiered playoff tournament is the system in use as of 2005.
Some baseball purists don't like the idea that teams that were not consistently good enough to win their division can still win the World Series. Purisits also used a similar argument when LCS teams with lesser records advanced to the Series. However, the wild card approach has proven to be a great success with the fans, providing a good deal of extra drama during the final month of the season, although admittedly it has sometimes taken away from the normal "pennant race" drama when the two best teams in the league happen to be in the same division. The wild card qualifier (#4 seed) has actually won more world series than any other seed in baseball (since wildcards became eligible in 1995). They have won a total of four World Series, and won three years in a row from 2002-2004, with the 2002 World Series being between both wildcards.
Some observers wonder if an extra wild card team should be added to each league, and if a best-of-three wild card playoff should be added before the Division Series, though as of the mid-2000s this does not have much traction. This would be the logical next step, if and when baseball expands its playoffs again. A downside to this idea is that, even with the three-tiered system, the World Series is stretching to Halloween or even into early November. Adding yet another tier - even for three games - would likely push the warm-weather sport's season into November every year with the potential for snow-delays in northern stadiums like Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, but this could be remedied by starting the season the last week of March instead of the first week of April. Bud Selig in an interview on FSN, said that although he is not opposed to an extra wildcard team in each league, he doesn't want to change the playoffs yet becuase "the current system is working so well."
The World Series used several different formats in its early years. Initially it generally followed an alternating home-and-home pattern, except that if a 7th game was possible, its site was determined by coin toss prior the 6th game. In 1924 the Series began using a 2-3-2 format, presumably to save on travel costs, a pattern which has continued to this day with the exception of a couple of the World War II years when wartime travel restrictions compelled a 3-4 format. From the start of the 2-3-2 format until 2002, home field advantage generally alternated between leagues each year. Starting in 2003, following a much-criticized All Star Game in 2002 that ended in an unsatisfying tie, it was decided to give tangible meaning to that game, by awarding the league that wins it with home-field advantage in the World Series that year. Coupled with the American League's scheduled home field advantage in the 2002 Series, this has given the American League the home edge for 4 years in a row as of this writing.
League Championship Series
Until 1998 The LCS alternated home-field advantage with a 2-3 format in the best of 5 era and a 2-3-2 format when it went to best of 7 in 1985. Now home-field advantage goes to the team with the best record unless it is a wild card qualifier.
Until 1998 the Division Series rotated which of the three division champions would not have home field advantage, with the wild card never having it. Now the two division winners with the best records in each league have home field, with the least-winning divisonal winner and the wild card not having home field. The DS used a 2-3 format until 1998 and now uses a 2-2-1 format.
Playoffs in the National Hockey League
The National Hockey League has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion, generally opening up its playoff games to a much larger number of teams, including those with a losing regular season record. Because of this, the Stanley Cup playoffs is considered to be one of the hardest championships to win.
From the NHL's inception to 1920, when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between the NHL, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, the regular season was divided into two halves, with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals, which was a two-game total goals series in 1918 and a best-of-seven series in 1919. In 1920, the Ottawa Senators was automatically declared the league champion when the team had won both halves of the regular season. The two halves format was abandoned the next year, and the top two teams faced off for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals series.
At the time, the NHL champion would later face the winners of the PCHA and, from 1921, the Western Canada Hockey League in further rounds in order to determine the Stanley Cup champion. During this time, as the rules of the NHL and those of the western leagues differ (the main difference being that NHL rules allowed five skaters while the western leagues allowed six), the rules for each game in the Stanley Cup Final alternated between those of the NHL and the western leagues. Before the WCHL competed for the Stanley Cup, the Stanley Cup Finals was a best-of-five series. Following the involvement of the WCHL, one league champion was given a bye straight to the finals (a best-of-three affair starting in 1922), while the other two competed in a best-of-three semifinal. As travel expenses were high during these times, it was often the case that the NHL champions were sent west to compete. In a dispute between the leagues in 1923 about whether to send one or both western league champions east, the winner of the PCHA/WCHL series would proceed to the Stanley Cup Finals while the loser of the series would face the NHL champions, both series being best-of-three.
In 1924 the NHL playoffs expanded from two to three teams (with the top team getting a bye to the two-game total goal NHL finals), but because the first-place Hamilton Tigers refused to play under this format, the second and third place teams played for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals affair. The Stanley Cup Finals was returned to the best-of-five format the same year.
With the merger of the PCHA and WCHL in 1925 and its collapse in 1926, the NHL took sole control of the Stanley Cup, and from this point the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are considered synonymous. The NHL was subsequently divided into the Canadian and American divisions until the 1937-38 season. For 1927, six teams qualified for the playoffs, three from each division, with the division semifinals and finals being a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Final a best-of-five affair. In 1928, the playoff format was changed so that the two teams with identical division ranking would face each other (ie. the first place teams would play each other, the second place teams play each other, and likewise for the third place teams). The first place series was a best-of-five affair, with the winner proceeding to the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals, while the others was a two-game total goals series. The winner of the second and third place series would play each other in a best-of-three series, with the winner earning the other berth to the Stanley Cup Finals. This format had a slight modification the following year, where the semifinal series became a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-five series. The two-game total goals format was abolished in 1937, with those series being changed to best-of-three affairs.
The 1938-39 season saw the reduction of teams from 10 to 7, and with it an end to the Canadian and American divisions. The Stanley Cup playoffs saw the first and second place teams play against each other in a best-of-seven series for one berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, while the third to sixth place teams battled in a series of best-of-three matches for the other berth (with the third place team battling the fourth place team, and the fifth place team against the sixth place team). The playoff format introduced in the 1938-39 season had a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, which still stands today.
The 1942-43 season saw the removal of the New York Americans, and thus the six remaining teams formed the Original Six. During this era, the playoff format went unchanged, with the first and third place teams battling in one best-of-seven semifinal, while the second and fourth place teams battled in the other best-of-seven semifinal.
The Modern Era expansion saw the number of teams double from six to twelve in the 1967-68 season, and with it the creation of the Western and Eastern Conferences. The playoff format remained largely the same, with all series remaining best-of-seven, and the Western and Eastern Conference champions battling for the Stanley Cup. The 1970-71 season, because of fan demand, brought forth the first interconference playoff matchup outside of the Stanley Cup Final since the pre-war expansion, which had the winner of the 2 vs 4 matchup in one conference take on the winner of the 1 vs 3 matchup in the other conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. The following year had one minor change to its playoff format: a stronger team would face a weaker opponent. Thus, instead of a 1 vs 3 and 2 vs 4 matchup in the first round, the first round had a 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 matchup. This practice of having stronger teams facing weaker opposition would continue to the present day.
The 1974-75 seasons saw another change to its playoff system to accommodate the league of now 18 teams, 12 of which qualified for postseason berth. The top team from each conference would earn byes to the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, while the second and third place teams from each division started their playoff run from a preliminary round. In each round of the playoffs, the teams remaining were seeded regardless of divisional or conference alignment, with the preliminary-round series being a best-of-three affair while the remainer of the series remained best-of-seven. The 1977-78 season had one minor change in its playoff format: although the second place finishers from each division would qualify for the preliminary round, the four playoff spots reserved for the third-place teams were replaced by four wild-card spots - spots for the four teams with the highest regular-season point total but did not finish first or second in their divisions.
With the absorption of four teams from the World Hockey Association in the 1979-1980 season, a new playoff system was introduced where 16 of the league's 21 teams would qualify for postseason play. The four division winners would qualify for the playoffs while twelve wildcard positions rounded out the sixteen teams. At the beginning of each round, the remaining teams were seeded based on their regular season point totals, with the preliminary round being a best-of-five series while all other playoff series were best-of-seven.
The 1981-1982 season brought forth the return of divisional matchups, with the top four teams from each division qualifying for the postseason play. Division champions would be determined, followed by the Conference champions, who would meet in the Stanley Cup finals. The division semifinals was a best-of-five affair until the 1986-87 season, when it became a best-of-seven series, while all other series remained best-of seven.
The 1993-94 season brought forth the change in the playoff format that would result in the format being used today. The division winners would occupy the first and second seeds while six wildcard berths completed the conference playoff draws, with all series being best-of-seven. One quirk that was abolished with division realignment in the 1998-99 season was that the higher-ranked teams in Western Conference interdivisional matchups had the option of having home ice rotate on a 2-2-1-1-1 basis or a 2-3-2 basis, and if the latter was chosen having the bulk of their games at home or on the road. The 1998-99 season also brought forth a re-seeding of conference playoff matchups after the first round, as well as a third division in each conference.
Playoffs in English football (soccer)
For the first hundred years of its history, the English Football League did not employ any kind of playoff system to determine either a champion or promotion except in the earliest years of the Second Division when "test matches" decided promotion and relegation between the top teams of the Second Division and the bottom teams at the top level. This system was abandoned by the turn of the century.
To this day, the championship of every division in English football is determined solely by the "regular season" standings. A championship playoff would only be held if two teams were tied for points, goal difference and goals scored - this has never happened at the professional level.
The use of playoffs to decide promotion issues finally returned to the League in 1986 with the desire to reduce the number of mid-table clubs with nothing to play for at the end of the season. The Nationwide Conference introduced playoffs in 2002 after the Football League agreed to a two club exchange with the Conference.
The top two teams in the Football League Championship and in Football League One are automatically promoted and thus do not compete in the playoffs as are the top three teams in Football League Two and the champion of Conference National. In each of these divisions the four clubs finishing below the automatic promotion places compete in two-legged semi-finals with the higher-placed club enjoying home advantage in the second leg. The away goals rule does not apply for the semi-finals. The Football League playoff finals are one-off affairs which are normally played at Wembley Stadium in London, but while that stadium is being rebuilt the finals are taking place at the Millennium Stadium in Cardiff, Wales.
In 2003 Gillingham F.C. proposed replacing the current playoff system with one involving six clubs from each division and replacing the two-legged ties with one-off matches—if adopted the two higher-placed clubs in the playoffs would have enjoyed first-round byes and home advantage in the semi-finals. It was a controversial proposal—some people did not believe a club finishing eighth in the League could compete in the Premiership while others found the system too American for their liking. Although League chairmen initially voted in favour of the proposal, it was blocked by The FA and soon abandoned.
In addition to its league competitions, English football also has two major knockout competitions - the FA Cup and the League Cup. However, these competitions are open to many more teams than would be found in an American-style playoff—92 clubs compete for the League Cup, and hundreds compete for the FA Cup. In addition, these competitions run concurrently with the "regular season" league competitions and therefore do not even remotely resemble the sort of playoffs familiar to American sports fans.
Playoffs in Australian Rules Football and Australian rugby league
Playoffs are used in both the Australian Football League and the National Rugby League, where they are known as finals or semis - although unlike North American leagues, participating teams only come from within a single division, and also consist of single matches rather than series.
In both leagues, the top eight teams at the end of the regular season qualify for the finals. Although the systems used in both leagues are slightly different, both involve two teams being eliminated in each round until only two teams remain (the participants in the Grand Final), and both are structured so that higher-ranked teams are given a more advantageous draw.
The system used by the AFL works as follows:
- First-ranked team vs fourth-ranked team (1st Qualifying Final)
- Second-ranked team vs third-ranked team (2nd Qualifying Final)
- Fifth-ranked team vs eighth-ranked team (1st Elimination Final)
- Sixth-ranked team vs seventh-ranked team (2nd Elimination Final)
The winners of the qualifying finals advance directly to week three, while the losers of the elimination finals are eliminated. The remaining four teams continue on to week two.
- Loser of 2nd qualifying final vs winner of 2nd elimination final (1st Semi-Final)
- Loser of 1st qualifying final vs winner of 1st elimination final (2nd Semi-Final)
The two winners advance to week three while the losers are eliminated.
- Winner of 1st qualifying final vs winner of 1st semi-final (1st Preliminary Final)
- Winner of 2nd qualifying final vs winner of 2nd semi-final (2nd Preliminary Final)
The two winners advance to the Grand Final, held in week four at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.
The McIntyre Final Eight System, used by the NRL but previously used by the AFL, works as follows:
- First-ranked team vs eighth-ranked team (4th Qualifying Final)
- Second-ranked team vs seventh-ranked team (3rd Qualifying Final)
- Third-ranked team vs sixth-ranked team (2nd Qualifying Final)
- Fourth-ranked team vs fifth-ranked team (1st Qualifying Final)
After this round, the four winners are ranked in order of their positions at the end of the regular season, as are the four losers. The two highest ranked winners advance directly to week three, while the two lowest ranked losers are eliminated. The remaining four teams continue on to week two.
- Third highest-ranked winner vs highest-ranked loser (1st Semi Final)
- Fourth highest-ranked winner vs second highest-ranked loser (2nd Semi Final)
The two winners advance to week three while the losers are eliminated.
- Highest-ranked winner from Week One vs winner of 1st semi-final (1st Preliminary Final)
- Second highest-ranked winner from Week One vs winner of 2nd semi-final (2nd Preliminary Final)