The NBA playoffs began last week, and the NHL playoffs are set to begin next week. Both leagues have extremely similar playoff formats: both leagues play 82 games, eight teams from each conference advance to the playoffs and each playoff match-up is decided by a seven game series.
Major League Baseball uses the best-of-seven format to decide their playoff match-ups as well. All this led me to the question: Do we really need seven games to decide which team is better? In my opinion, no.
There are a few factors to consider here. First: the nature of the sport. It would be foolish to believe that the NFL could play a best of seven playoff series.
If that were the case, a wild card team could conceivably have to play 28 playoff games, almost twice as many as they play in the regular season. Half the team would be on injured reserve by the second round.
The seven game format makes more sense in leagues like the NBA, NHL and MLB. Those leagues play more games, and there is a much lower injury probability. But just because they can play a best of seven series doesn’t mean they should. A single elimination format would make these leagues’ playoff games much more exciting and entertaining.
This brings us to the second factor to consider: fan interest. 108.4 million people tuned in to watch the Super Bowl this year. That’s close to a third of the US population. Now compare that to the 15.5 million that watched last year’s World Series.
I understand that football is a more popular sport, but I don’t believe this is because football is necessarily “better” than baseball. Rather, I believe that more people tune in to watch football because every game matters more.
To compare the two, missing one MLB regular season game is the equivalent of missing approximately the first six minutes of an NFL regular season game. This holds true in the playoffs as well.
Missing one World Series game is equivalent to missing the first eight and a half minutes of the Super Bowl. When the fate of a team’s season is condensed down into one game, rather than spread out over a possible seven, the interest level will skyrocket and more people will tune in.
The third factor to consider is whether or not the “better” team wins. Someone who supports the seven game series format might point to the fact that bad teams can get lucky.
All you need are a couple of fluke plays along the way and you’re left with a seven seed and an eight seed playing for the championship. Then again, just look at the NHL last year. The Los Angeles Kings—an eight seed—won the Stanley Cup despite playing in a best of seven playoff format. Fluky things happen. If you truly are the “better” team, win the game. Plain and simple.
Changing to a single elimination format wouldn’t ruin the NBA, NHL or MLB playoffs at all. Teams would adjust. You’d have MLB teams using all five of their starting pitchers in a game. NBA teams would play their starters for entire games.
Players in all leagues would ramp up their effort to the maximum. There would be no resting your starters for game two. Every player would be putting everything they have into that one game. And whatever team wins is therefore “better.”
How many times do the Milwaukee Bucks need to get dunked on before we can say that the Miami Heat is the better team? Do they really need to play out the four games? The NBA, NHL and MLB would all be better served if they changed to a single elimination format. Will they make that change? No. And as a result, football will continue to have far and away the most viewers come playoff time.