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PLAYERS & TEAM EARNINGS

Why the WNBA’s New Playoff Format is a Smart Move

The league simplified its playoffs by eliminated byes and re-seeding, changing it to a standard eight-team tournament.

The WNBA Playoffs will have a new look in 2022.

Thankfully.

The league is doing away with its quirkier features — single-elimination games, single- and double-byes, and re-seeding — in favor of a more conventional eight-team tournament. That means eight teams and three rounds, with the bracket seeded at the start and not adjusted based on upsets.

“We have been evaluating different playoff formats over the past 12 months, and the new playoff format being announced today will enable fans to engage with all of the league’s best teams and top stars right from the start of the postseason with all eight championship contenders immediately involved in exciting, first-round action,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert in a release.

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“Following significant discussions with our Competition Committee and a Playoff subcommittee we formed last year, it was clear that while the prior format’s single-elimination games created a win-and-advance level of excitement to the start of the postseason, the new best-of-three series format will provide added opportunities to create and showcase rivalries with all playoff-eligible teams participating,” Engelbert said.

The New Format

First things first:

  • The first round of the playoffs will consist of best-of-three series, with the No. 1 seed playing No. 8, the 2 facing the 7, 3 vs. 6, and 4 vs. 5.
  • The teams that advance will play a best-of-five semifinal series and those winners will play in a best-of-five WNBA Finals.
  • In total, the new format eliminates one round of the playoffs while keeping the same number of teams and adding a potential eight total games.

The only twist in this new bracket format will come in the first round: The lower seed in each series will not be guaranteed a home game, but will instead be sent to the higher seed’s home arena for the first two games. If there is a decisive Game 3, the series would then shift to the lower seed.

It’s a departure from most playoff series formats in US sports, which would put a winner-take-all game in the home arena or stadium of the better seed.

The WNBA also included an official announcement extending the regular season in its release. The league had planned to go from 34 to 36 regular season games prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, but had to settle on a 22-game season in 2020 and a 30-game season in 2021.

Why it Makes Sense

The WNBA was in a tricky situation. At just 12 teams, it had to find a way to maximize its postseason while still rewarding teams that succeeded in the regular season. The compromise was to invite eight teams — 2/3 of the total, for you non-math majors — but give the top two seeds double-byes and the 3 and 4 seeds single byes. The first two rounds were single elimination.

TV requirements were a major factor there, but it also had the advantage of ensuring that the top seeds didn’t sit idle for too long.

However it happened behind the scenes, the WNBA found it no longer needed single elimination, and the league is better for it. Perhaps there’s an argument for single elimination being a necessary gimmick, but that need has passed; there’s already increased interest in the WNBA regular season, and new events like the Commissioners Cup only encourage progress in the years to come.

Furthermore, whittling an expanded season down to one winner-take-all game for four teams will be even less fair at 36 regular season games than it was at 32.

The prior format was also unintentionally contradictory. By having two single-elimination rounds, it made upsets much more likely — it’s much easier for a lower seed to beat a higher seed one time than it is in a three- or five-game series. However, the league also re-seeded after each round in an effort to protect the best teams and make it more likely that the Finals will produce the highest-level product.

It remains to be seen whether the new format will include more or fewer upsets, but either way, it. strikes a better balance between entertainment and fairness to the teams that succeeded in the regular season.

But those are all mere nitpicks compared to the most important improvement in the new format: more games, both of the regular season and playoff variety.

ESPN, which airs the WNBA Playoffs, appears to have accepted that airing more WNBA games is in its best interest, as it has agreed to air a playoff format that could feature as many as eight more games across the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds. For 2021, the WNBA reported a 42% ratings increase in the finals compared to 2019, its last full season. It’s a win for basketball fans, teams, and executives alike.

What’s Next for the W

The WNBA needs to expand.

Desperately.

With 12 teams and 12 players on each roster, too many quality athletes are battling for too few roster spots. It does sound like we are trending toward eventual expansion, with big names in Oakland and Toronto pushing for expansion franchises.

Notably, there won’t be a need to expand the playoffs again — at least not right away. Eight out of 14 or eight out of 16 is perfectly reasonable.

Further expansion, however, won’t be off the table entirely. All it would take is for the WNBA to continue to grow in popularity and for the league to further incentivize its players to not go overseas in the offseason. That would allow for a longer schedule, either starting the season earlier or ending it later.

Once the league expands and the players earn their worth so they’re no longer tempted to go elsewhere to make money in the winter, the playoffs can grow again.

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