When it comes to the playoffs, less is more

Understatement of the week: The fact that eight of the nine NLL teams make the playoffs has caused some controversy. Judging by the talk on twitter and the IL Indoor forums over the last year or two, many fans don’t like it. They feel it cheapens the regular season, making most of the games meaningless. As someone put it, they play 72 games to eliminate 1 team, then 7 games to eliminate 7 teams.

When there were six or seven teams in each division, this format made some sense, but now that there’s only nine teams, I’m not sure it still does. I don’t think I’ve seen the NLL actually state their reasons for making the decision not to change the playoff format , but there are advantages along with the disadvantages. Here are the top few of each:

Pros

  1. The more teams make the playoffs, the more fans get to watch playoff games, and who doesn’t want to watch their team in playoff games?
  2. More teams in the playoffs means more playoff games. More playoff games means more revenue. Now that the NLL is actually receiving money from a TV deal (CBS Sports), this is a good thing for the league.
  3. Unless a team has a really lousy season, every team is still in the playoff hunt until close to the end of the season, arguably making more games meaningful, not fewer. This year, with only four games left in the regular season, we only know the final seeding of one team, and three teams are still fighting for two remaining playoff spots.

Cons

  1. If you’re a good team and you’re confident you won’t finish last, you could mail in the first half of the season, knowing you’d still make the playoffs anyway. As long as you don’t finish last, the regular season is basically a warm-up for the playoffs.
  2. If two teams have a really lousy season, you could have a 5-11 team make the playoffs. And we have. For comparison, this is equivalent to 51 points in a full NHL season. The fewest points by a playoff team since the 2004-05 lockout was 88 by both Philadelphia and Montreal in 2009-10 – and many think the NHL also allows too many teams into the playoffs.

Con #2 is certainly an issue that I agree with. No team with a record that bad should be making the playoffs. But I’m not sure I buy Con #1. First off, if you make the playoffs but don’t finish first or second, you may not get a home playoff game, and I assume teams generally want to play playoff games at home. So simply making the playoffs isn’t enough. Also, if you mail in the first half and then screw up the second half and do miss the playoffs, you’re going to look pretty stupid. A stupid move like that is likely to cost you (as a coach or GM) your job, and in this league, it could cost you your fan base and ultimately your franchise. No executive is going to take that chance.

The NLL will be adding two more games to the 2014 schedule, but haven’t announced any changes to the playoff format. While I applaud the schedule expansion (two more games per team means 9 more lacrosse games to watch next year!), I’m wondering if the schedule change announcement would have been the right time to scale back the playoffs a bit. There are lots of ways to do this, but here are what I think are the best two:

  1. Nuke the divisional format and just have nine teams, ranked 1-9. Top six make the playoffs. In the first round, the top 2 teams get a bye, 3 plays 6 and 4 plays 5. Then 1 plays lowest seeded winner and 2 plays higher seeded winner. Winners of those games play for the Cup.
  2. If we must have divisions, then the top 3 from each division make the playoffs. No crossover. Top two get a bye, 2 and 3 in each division play. 1 plays winner, division winners play for the Cup.

Either way, we have five playoff games instead of seven, so the league may not like that. But the drama this weekend notwithstanding, it would make the regular season in general more meaningful, and reduces the possibility of a crappy team making the playoffs only because another team is crappier.

Of course, to go along with this would be a balanced schedule – but that’s a whole ‘nother topic for another day.

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