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The playoffs, postseason, or finals of a sports league are a competition played after the regular season by the top competitors to determine the league champion or a similar accolade. Depending on the league, the playoffs may be either a single game, a series of games, or a tournament, and may use a single-elimination system or one of several other different playoff formats.
In team sports in the U.S. and Canada, the vast distances and consequent burdens on cross-country travel have led to regional divisions of teams. Generally, during the regular season, teams play more games in their division than outside it, but the league's best teams might not play against each other in the regular season. Therefore, in the postseason a playoff series is organized. Any group-winning team is eligible to participate, and as playoffs became more popular they were expanded to include second- or even lower-placed teams – the term "wild card" refers to these teams.
In England and Scotland playoffs are used in football to decide promotion for lower finishing teams, rather than to decide a champion in the way they are used in North America. In the Championship (the second tier of English football) teams finishing 3rd to 6th after the regular season compete to decide the final promotion spot to the Premier League.
- 1 American football
- 2 Association football
- 3 Australian rules football
- 4 Baseball
- 5 Basketball
- 6 Canadian football
- 7 Ice hockey
- 8 NASCAR
- 9 Rugby league
- 10 Rugby union
- 11 See also
- 12 External links
- 13 Notes and references
National Football League
Evidence of playoffs in professional football dates to at least 1919, when the "New York Pro Championship" was held in Western New York (it's possible one was held in 1917, but that's not known for sure). The Buffalo and Rochester metropolitan areas each played a championship game, the winners of which would advance to the "New York Pro Championship" on Thanksgiving weekend. The top New York teams were eventually absorbed into the NFL upon its founding in 1920, but the league (mostly driven by an Ohio League that did not have true championship games, though they frequently scheduled de facto championship matchups) did not adopt the New York league's playoff format, opting for a championship based on regular season record for its first twelve seasons; as a result, four of the first six "championships" were disputed. Technically, a vote of league owners was all that was required to win a title, but the owners had a gentlemen's agreement to pledge votes based on a score (wins divided by the sum of wins and losses, with a few tiebreakers). When two teams tied at the top of the standings in 1932, an impromptu playoff game was scheduled to settle the tie.
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 AFL-NFL merger brought the American Football League into the NFL, the NFL began to use three divisions and a single wild card team in each conference for its playoffs, in order to produce eight contenders out of six divisions; this was later expanded in 1978 & 1990 so that more wild card teams could participate.
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 a home game in their first rounds, and the two top non-division winners from each conference will also make the playoffs as wild-card teams. The top two teams with the best records in the regular season get a first round bye, and each of the bottom two division winners plays one of the two wild-card teams. Each winner of a wild-card game then plays one of the two bye teams. The winners of these two games go to the conference championships, and the winners of those conference championship games then face each other in the Super Bowl.
As a rule, international association football has only had championship playoffs when a league is divided into several equal divisions/conferences/groups (Major League Soccer) and/or when the season is split into two periods (as in many leagues in Latin America, such as Mexico's Liga MX). In leagues with a single table done only once a year, as in most of Europe, playoff systems are not used to determine champions, although in some countries such systems are used to determine teams to be promoted to higher leagues (e.g., England) or qualifiers for European club competitions (such as Greece and the Netherlands).
A test match is a match played at the end of a season between a team that has done badly in a higher league and one that has done well in a lower league of the same football league system. The winner of the test match plays in the higher league the following year, and the loser in the lower league.
In international football, playoffs were a feature of the 1954 and 1958 FIFA World Cup final tournaments. They are still a feature of the qualification tournaments for the FIFA World Cup and the UEFA European Football Championship.
- In Europe, after the first-place finishers in each of eight groups received automatic finals places, along with the two second-place teams that had earned the most points against teams in the top six of their individual groups, the remaining six second-placed teams entered playoffs to select three teams for the finals.
- The winners of the Oceania qualifying tournament, Australia played the fifth placed team from the South American qualifying tournament, Uruguay.
- The fifth-placed team of the Asia qualifying tournament, Bahrain played the fourth-placed team in the CONCACAF qualifying tournament, Trinidad and Tobago.
In addition to their league competitions, most European footballing nations also have knockout cup competitions - English football, for example, has the FA Cup and the League Cup. These competitions are open to many teams — 92 clubs compete for the League Cup, and hundreds compete for the FA Cup. These competitions run concurrently with the "regular season" league competitions and are not regarded as playoffs.
In Argentine football, playoffs in the style of the English leagues occur in the Primera B Metropolitana, part of the third tier, and leagues below it (Primera C Metropolitana and Primera D Metropolitana). All Primera Metropolitana tourneys cover the area in and around Buenos Aires, the capital city. The Torneo Reducidos (reduced tournaments), however, involve 8 teams below the top two, as opposed to 4.
For the top-flight Argentine Primera División, there is no playoff between the Apertura and Clausura winner. As a result, the league crowns two champions each year. After each Clausura, the two teams with the lowest points-per-game total for the previous six tournaments (three years, counting only Primera División games) are relegated to Primera B Nacional to be replaced by that league's champion and runner-up teams; the two teams immediately above contest promotion/relegation series with the third and fourth places in Primera B Nacional, counted by its aggregate table. In Primera B Nacional, the same procedure is followed for relegation to either Primera B Metropolitana or Torneo Argentino A for non-Buenos Aires clubs.
The Australian A-League, which also features a team in New Zealand, has determined its champions via a playoff system, officially known as the "Finals Series" (reflecting standard Australian English usage), since its inception in the 2005–06 season.
From the league's inception through the 2008–09 season, the top four teams advanced to the finals series, employed using a modified Page playoff system. The top two teams at the end of league play were matched in one semifinal, with the winner advancing directly to the Grand Final and the loser going into the Preliminary Final. The next two teams played a semifinal for a place in the Preliminary Final, whose winner took the other place in the Grand Final. Both semifinals were two-legged, while the Preliminary Final and Grand Final were one-off matches.
When the league expanded to 10 teams beginning in 2009–10, the finals expanded to six teams. The format of the six-team playoff established at that time was:
- The "semifinals" were held over a two-week period. The pairings for Week 1 of the semifinals were 1 vs 2, 3 vs 6, and 4 vs 5.
- In Week 1, the top two teams played the first leg of a two-legged match, and the remaining teams played one-off knockout matches.
- In Week 2, the top two teams played the second leg of their semifinal, and the two other surviving teams played a one-off match. The winner of the two-legged match advanced directly to the Grand Final, while the loser of that match joined the winner of the last semifinal in the Preliminary Final.
- The Preliminary Final and Grand Final remained unchanged.
Starting with the 2012–13 season, the finals format has been changed to a pure knockout tournament consisting entirely of one-off matches:
- In Week 1, two Elimination Finals will be held, with the pairings being 3 vs 6 and 4 vs 5.
- In Week 2, the winners of the Elimination Finals advance to Semi-Finals. The top team on the regular-season table, called the "premiers" by the A-League, plays the lowest-seeded survivor of the Elimination Finals, and the second-place team plays the other Elimination Final survivor.
- The Grand Final, pitting the two Semi-Final winners, takes place in Week 3.
It should be noted that the concept of a finals series/playoff is standard in Australian sport.
In the Belgian Pro League, the 15th team out of 16 in the final standings has to join a playoff pool with three teams from the Belgian Second Division after each season, to determine which of these teams gets to play in the Pro League the oncoming season. The lowest ranked team of the Pro League is relegated and replaced by the Second Division champion.
Originally, these playoffs were introduced in 1974 and were part of the Second Division, to determine which team was promoted to the highest level together with the division champions. From the 2005-06 season on, only one team was relegated directly from the First Division, with the 17th team taking part in the playoff. As a result, this playoff is still called the Belgian Second Division Final Round, although one team from the Pro League now takes part each year.
Starting the 2009-10 season, play-offs are held to determine the champion and tickets for the Champions League and Europa League. The six highest ranked teams play home-and-away matches against each other; a total of 10 matches each. The 6 participating teams start with the points accumulated during the regular competition divided by two. The first 3 teams after play-offs get a European ticket. The fourth ranked team (or fifth, when the cup holder is already qualified for European football) plays a knock-out match against the winner of play-off 2. The teams ranked 7-14 play in two groups. All points gained from the regular competition are lost. The two group winners play a final match to determine the winner of play-off 2. The winning team plays a final match against the fourth ranked team (or fifth) for the last European ticket. 
The play-off system has been criticized because more points per match can be earned in the play-off stage than in the regular competition. This way the team who wins the most matches isn't automatically the national champion. The biggest upside in favor of the play-off system is the higher number of matches (40 instead of 34 compared to the previous season) and more topmatches. The extra matches also generate higher revenues for the teams.
Nonetheless, the higher number of matches takes an extra toll on teams and players. Besides play-offs, the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB) also introduced Christmas football in order to complete the extra matches in time. This posed some problems because a few matches had to be cancelled due to snowy pitches . The delays will probably cause the tight schedule to fail and postpone the end of the season.[speculation?]
When the Football League was first expanded to two divisions in 1892, test matches were employed to decide relegation and promotion between them, but the practice was scrapped in favour of automatic relegation and promotion in 1898.
The use of play-offs to decide promotion issues 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 Football Conference introduced play-offs 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 to the division above and thus do not compete in the play-offs. The top three teams in Football League Two and the champion of Conference Premier are also automatically promoted. 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, which has led to some games swinging the way of a team that otherwise would have been beaten by the rule. The Football League play-off finals were originally played in two legs, at both teams' home grounds, but were later changed to one-off affairs, which are played at Wembley Stadium in London.
Teams are also promoted using a play-off tournament from levels six to eight of the football pyramid. At level six, the play-off semi finals are two leg ties with the final being a single match played at the home ground of the highest placed of the two teams. At levels seven and eight, all of the ties are single matches played at the home ground of the team with the highest league position.
In 2003, Gillingham proposed replacing the current play-off 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 play-offs 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.
The championship of every division in English football is determined solely by the standings in the league. However, a championship play-off would be held if the top two teams were tied for points, goal difference and goals scored in both their overall league record and their matches against each other ("head-to-head" results); to date, this has never happened. A play-off would also be scheduled if two teams are tied as above for a position affecting promotion, relegation, or European qualification.
Starting in the 2007–08 season, Superleague Greece instituted a playoff system to determine all of its places in European competition for the following season, except for those of the league champion and the cup winner. Currently, the league is entitled to two Champions League places and three in the Europa League, with one of the Europa League places reserved for the cup winner. The playoff currently takes the form of a home-and-away mini-league involving the second- through fifth-place teams, under the following conditions:
- The fifth-place team starts the playoffs at 0 points.
- The remaining teams start with a number of "bonus points" determined as follows:
- The number of points earned by the fifth-place team during the main league season is subtracted from the totals of each other club involved in the playoffs.
- The resulting number is then divided by 5 and rounded to the nearest whole number.
- At the end of the playoffs, the winner receives the country's second Champions League place. The next two teams enter the Europa League at different points depending on their playoff finishes; the last-placed team is entirely out of European competition. However, if the cup winner finished in a playoff spot (as happened in 2010–11), or the league champion also won the cup, and the losing cup finalist finished in a playoff spot (as happened in 2012–13), the bottom three teams in the playoff all receive Europa League berths.
In 2004-05, Italy's professional league introduced a promotion playoff to its second tier of football, Serie B. It operates almost identically to the system currently used in England. The top two clubs in Serie B earn automatic promotion to Serie A with the next four clubs entering a playoff to determine who wins the third promotion place, as long as fewer than 10 points separate the third and fourth-placed teams (which often occurs).
Like the English playoffs, the Italian playoffs employ two-legged semi-finals, with the higher finisher in the league table earning home advantage in the second leg. If the teams are level on aggregate after full-time of the second leg, away goals are not used, but extra time is used. Unlike England, the Italian playoff final is two-legged, again with the higher finisher earning home advantage in the second leg. In both rounds, if the tie is level on aggregate after extra time in the second leg, the team that finished higher in the league standings wins.
In 2004, Italy's football (soccer) league used a two-legged test match to determine one spot in the top level of its system, Serie A. Some leagues in continental Europe combine automatic promotion/relegation with test matches. For example, in the Netherlands, only one club is automatically relegated from its top level, the Eredivisie, each season, with the winner of the second-flight being promoted. The next two lower-placed teams enter a promotion/relegation mini-league with high-placed teams from the Dutch First Division
J.League in Japan used a test match series between the third-from-bottom team in J1 and third-place team in J2 (see J. League Promotion/Relegation Series) from 2004 to 2008. The Promotion/Relegation Series concept dates as far back as 1965 and the first season of the Japan Soccer League.
The Japan Football League, the current Japanese third division, uses the Promotion/Relegation Series only when the number of clubs in the league needs to be filled with clubs from the Japanese Regional Leagues.
A new Promotion/Relegation Series will occur beginning with the 2012 season of J. League Division 2, conditional on the top two JFL teams fulfilling J. League club criteria. In turn, J2 will implement a playoff on the style of England for the 3rd to 6th clubs.
Mexico's top flight league, Liga MX, is contested annually by 18 teams. In each of two annual tournaments, every team plays every other team in the league once (17 games), after which the top eight teams in each group advance to the Liguilla.
In the Liguilla, all rounds are home-and-away. Teams are drawn so the best team plays the worst, the second-best plays the second-worst, and so on. After one round, the teams are redrawn so the best remaining team again plays the worst remaining one and the second-best faces the second-worst in the semi-finals. The two winners of this round play each other for the championship.
There is no playoff between the Apertura and Clausura winner. As a result, the league crowns two champions each year. After each Clausura, the team with the lowest points-per-game total for the previous six tournaments (three years, counting only Liga MX games) is relegated to Ascenso MX to be replaced by that league's champion (if eligible).
In the Netherlands, a playoff was introduced in season 2005-2006. It is used to determine which teams from the Eredivisie qualify for European football. The playoff system has been criticized by clubs, players and fans as the number of matches will increase. Under the original playoff format, it was possible, though thoroughly unlikely, that the runner-up would not qualify for Europe; the following year, the format was changed so that the second-place team was assured of no worse than a UEFA Cup berth. Starting in 2008–09, the format was changed yet again. The champion goes directly to the Champions League; the runner-up enters the second qualification round of the CL; the number three enters the fourth (and last) qualification round of the UEFA Europa League (EL; the new name of the UEFA Cup from 2009–10 onward) and the number four goes to the third qualification round of the EL. The only play-off will be for the clubs placed 5th through 8th. The winner of that play-off receives a ticket for the second qualification round of the EL.
The Scottish Premier League experimented briefly with playoffs in the mid-1990s, with only one team - Dundee United - achieving promotion through it (Partick Thistle were relegated at their expense). Currently, the bottom team is relegated to the First Division of the Scottish Football League, and the top team from there is promoted. In the First/Second and Second/Third Division, while the champions are automatically promoted and the bottom team relegated, there are playoffs of the second-bottom teams against the second, third and fourth placed teams from the league below. Home and away ties decide semi-finals and a final, and the overall winner plays in the higher league the following season, with the loser in the lower league.
Long before the SPL era, two situations arose in which the top two teams in the table had to share the title as neither goal average nor goal difference had been instituted to break ties. The first was the inaugural season, in which Dumbarton and Rangers both earned 29 points and had to play off for the title. The match ended in a 0-0 draw and both teams shared the title. The second happened 19 years later, in the Second Division, when Leith Athletic and Raith Rovers both earned 33 points. This time, the clubs chose not to play off. In 1915 goal average was finally instituted.
For the 2010/11 season, the Segunda División experimented with promotion playoffs between the 3rd to 6th placed teams, similar to the rules in the English and Italian systems. However, due to reserve teams being allowed to compete in the same football league system, subsequent places may be allowed to play off depending on reserve teams finishing within the 3rd to 6th places.
At a lower level, playoffs in Segunda División B take place to decide the divisional title between the 4 group winners, and to decide which other teams would be promoted, as follows:
- The first set of matches are an elimination tournament between the 4 group winners. The winners of each match are promoted and then play a final for the tier title.
- After the tier final takes place, the teams who finished 2nd in each of the 4 groups play the teams who finished 4th, whereas the teams who finished third play each other. The 6 winners, along with the 2 Group winners who lost their games in the earlier semifinals, play in each other in a knockout format until there is 2 teams remaining who are promoted.
- If within the qualifying places exist reserve teams whose senior teams are already in Segunda División, subsequent places are allowed to play off. If the senior teams are relegated from Segunda División during the season, the reserve team is automatically disqualified from competing and relegated to Tercera División.
Previously a play off system had been used in which the teams finishing 3rd and 4th from last in La Liga had played off against the teams finishing 3rd and 4th in the Segunda División. This system had been introduced in the 1980s but ended in 1998-99.
United States and Canada
In Major League Soccer in the U.S. and Canada, at the end of the regular season, the top five teams in each of its two conferences qualify for the playoffs (as of the 2012 season). Under this system, the conferences have separate playoff brackets.
In the first round of the postseason knockout tournament, the fourth-place team in each conference hosts the fifth-place team from the same conference in a one-off match, with the winner advancing to the Conference Semifinals.
The Conference Semifinals and the Conference Championships are conducted under a home-and-away, aggregate-goal format. For each conference, the top seed plays the first-round winner, and the 2nd seed faces the 3rd seed in the Conference Semifinal series, with the lower seeded team hosting the first game.
The team that scores the most goals in the home-and-away series advances to the Conference Championship, which expands from a one-off match to a two-legged match starting in 2012. If the teams are tied after 90 minutes of the second leg in either the Conference Semifinal or Conference Championship, a 30-minute extra time period (divided into two 15-minute periods) would be played followed by a penalty-kick shootout, if necessary. As in the Conference Semifinals, the lower seed in the Conference Championship hosts the first leg.
The winner of each conference will play for the MLS Cup, the league championship. Beginning in 2012, the MLS Cup is hosted by the conference champion with the most table points during the regular season.
In the case of ties after regulation in the First Round and MLS Cup, 30 minutes of extra time (divided into two 15-minute periods) would be played followed by a penalty-kick shootout, if necessary, to determine the winners.
MLS does not use the away goals rule in any playoff series.
The defunct Women's Professional Soccer (WPS), which operated only in the U.S., conducted a four-team stepladder tournament consisting of one-off knockout matches. The third seed hosted the fourth seed in the first round. The winner of that game advanced to the "Super Semifinal", hosted by the second seed. The Super Semifinal winner traveled to the top seed for the championship game. The replacement of WPS, the National Women's Soccer League (which launched in 2013), has a more standard four-team knockout playoff in which the winners of two one-off semifinals advance to the one-off final.
Australian rules football
Playoffs are used throughout Australia in Australian rules football to determine the premiership. The term finals is most commonly used to describe them. In each league, a set number of teams, usually between four and eight, qualifies for finals based on the league ladder from the season. Australian rules football leagues employ finals systems which act as a combination between a single elimination tournament for lower-ranked teams, and a double elimination tournament for higher-ranked teams, in order to provide teams with an easier pathway to the Grand Final as reward for strong performances throughout the season. Finals are decided by single matches, rather than series.
The Australian Football League, which is the top level of the sport, currently has eight teams qualify for the finals; the finals are operated under a system designed by the league in 2000. Between 1931–1999, variants of the McIntyre System were used to accommodate four, five, six and eight teams; prior to 1930, several different finals systems were used.
In most other leagues, from state-level leagues such as the South Australian National Football League and West Australian Football League, down to suburban leagues, it is most common for either four or five teams to qualify for finals. In these cases the Page-McIntyre final four system or the McIntyre final five system are used universally.
The Australian Football League (which was then known as the Victorian Football League) was the first league to introduce regular finals when the league was established in 1897. The South Australian National Football League, introduced finals in 1898, and other leagues soon followed. Prior to this, the premiers were generally decided based on overall win-loss record, except where a playoff match was needed to break a tie.
Before 1950 the original Japanese Baseball League had been a single-table league of franchises. After it was reorganized into the Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) system, a series of playoffs ensued between the champions of the Central League and Pacific League.
Before the playoff system is placed in both professional leagues, the Pacific League had applied a playoff system for twice. The first is between 1973–1982, which they applied a split-season and have an 5-game playoff between the winning teams of both halves of season (unless a team won both of the half so that they need not to play such games). And the second time was between 2004–2006, which the top three team will play a two-staged stepladder knockout (3 games in first stage and 5 games in second stage) the decide the League Champion (and the team playing in Japan Series). After applied with such system, the Seibu Lions (now Saitama Seibu Lions), Chiba Lotte Marines and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, which claimed the Pacific League Champion under such system, were all able to clinch the following Japan Series in that season. The success of such playoff system made Central League, which never used playoff system to decide League Champion, show interest in a playoff system. In 2007, a new playoff system, named "Climax Series", is introduced to both professional leagues in NPB to decide the team playing in Japan Series. The Climax Series basically applied the rule of the playoff system in Pacific League. But unlike the previous playoff system, Climax Series does not affact teams' standing nor individual records in regular season which the previous playoff system in Pacific League did, this means the winner of Japan Series may not be the winner of the League. The Chunichi Dragons takes the advantage of such system in the first Climax Series-implemented season, finishing second in regular season, but swept Hanshin Tigers and League Champion Yomiuri Giants in Central League Climax Series, and beat the Champion of Pacific League Climax Series Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to claim their first Japan Series in 52 years.
In 2008, the format of Climax Series will have a slight change, in which the second stage will be played for 6-games, and in which the League Champion will have an extra 1-game advantage.
United States and Canada
Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball (MLB) itself does not use the term "tournament" for postseason action. Instead they use the term "postseason" as the title of the official elimination tournament held after the conclusion of Major League Baseball's regular season. As of the most recent 2012 season, it consists of a first round single-elimination knockout game between the two wildcards in each league, a best-of-5 second round series called the Division Series, and two rounds of best-of-seven series for the League Championship and World Series.
MLB uses a "2-3-2" format for the final two rounds of its postseason tournament. In the Majors, the singular term "playoff" is reserved for the rare situation in which two (or more) teams find themselves tied at the end of the regular season and are forced to have a tiebreaking playoff game (or games) to determine which team will advance to the postseason. 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 postseason tournament (and has always been used by minor league baseball for its own postseason play), so this article defers to that usage.
MLB is the oldest of the major American 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.
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 1946–47.
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 2002–03 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.
The 2-3-2 finals format was adopted from the 1985 finals to 2013, copying the format that was then in effect in the National Hockey League. Prior to 1985, almost all finals were played in the 2-2-1-1-1 format (although the 1971 finals between Milwaukee and Baltimore were on an alternate-home basis, some 1950s finals used the 2-3-2 format, and the 1975 Golden State-Washington and 1978 and 1979 Seattle-Washington finals were on a 1-2-2-1-1 basis). Also, prior to the 1980s, East and West playoffs were on an alternate-home basis except for those series when distance made the 2-2-1-1-1 format more practical. From 2014 on, the NBA Finals will return to the original format.
Teams are seeded according to their regular-season record. The three division champions and best division runner-up receive the top four seeds, with their ranking based on regular-season record. The remaining teams are seeded strictly by regular-season record. However, should the best division runner-up have a higher record than other division champs, it could be seeded as high as 2nd.
One major difference between the NBA system and other sports playoffs 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.
In the Canadian Football League, the playoffs begin in November. After the regular season, the top team from each division has an automatic home game berth in the Division Final, and a bye week during the Division Semifinal. The second-place team from each division hosts the third-place team in the Division Semifinal, unless the fourth-place team from the opposite division finishes with a better record. This "crossover rule" does not come into play if the teams have identical records—there are no tiebreakers. While the format means that it is possible for two teams in the same division to play for the Grey Cup, so far only one crossover team has won the divisional semifinal game. The winners of each Division's Semifinal game then travel to play the first place teams in the Division Finals. Since 2005, the Division Semifinals and Division Finals have been sponsored by Scotiabank and are branded as the "Scotiabank East Championship" and "Scotiabank West Championship". The two division champions then face each other in the Grey Cup game, which is held on the third or fourth Sunday of November.
The Edmonton Eskimos are notable for qualifying for the CFL playoffs every year from 1972 to 2005, a record in North American pro sports. The Eskimos are also notable for being the first crossover team to ever win the divisional semifinal game.
National Hockey League
The National Hockey League playoff system is an elimination tournament competition for the Stanley Cup, consisting of four rounds of best-of-seven series. The first three rounds determine which team from each conference will advance to the final round, dubbed the Stanley Cup Final. The winner of that series becomes the NHL and Stanley Cup champion. The current Stanley Cup Champions are the Chicago Blackhawks.
Starting in 2014 the first round of the playoffs, or Division Semifinals, consists of two match-ups in each division, based on the seedings (# 1 vs. # 4, and # 2 vs. # 3). The division winner having the best record in the conference plays the lowest wild-card seed, while the other division winner plays the top wild-card seed (wild-card teams may cross over to another division within the conference). In the second round, or Division Finals, the two remaining teams in the division face each other. In the third round, the Conference Finals, the two division champions play each other, with the conference champions proceeding to the Stanley Cup Final.
For the first three rounds, the higher-seeded team has home-ice advantage (regardless of point record). In the Stanley Cup Finals, it goes to the team with the better regular season record. In all rounds the team with home-ice advantage hosts Games 1, 2, 5 and 7, while the opponent hosts Games 3, 4 and 6 (Games 5–7 are played "if necessary").
NASCAR implemented a "playoff" system beginning in 2004, that they coined the "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup". Currently, only NASCAR's top series uses the system. In the original version of the Chase (2004–2006), following the 26th race of the season, all drivers in the top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader got a spot in the 10-race playoff. Like the current system, drivers in the Chase had their point totals adjusted. However, it was based on the number of points at the conclusion of the 26th race. The first-place driver in the standings led with 5,050 points; the second-place driver started with 5,045. Incremental five-point drops continued through 10th place with 5,005 points).
The first major change to the Chase was announced by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France on January 22, 2007. After 26 races, the top 12 drivers advanced to contend for the points championship and points were reset to 5000. Each driver within the top 12 received an additional 10 points for each win during the "regular season," or first 26 races, thus creating a seeding based on wins. As in previous years, the Chase consisted of 10 races and the driver with the most points at the conclusion of the 10 races was the NEXTEL Cup Series Champion. Under the points system then in use, drivers could earn 5 bonus points for leading the most laps, and 5 bonus points for leading a single lap. Brian France explained why NASCAR made the changes to the chase:
"The adjustments taken [Monday] put a greater emphasis on winning races. Winning is what this sport is all about. Nobody likes to see drivers content to finish in the top 10. We want our sport -- especially during the Chase -- to be more about winning."
The current format of the Chase was announced by France on January 26, 2011, along with several other changes, most significantly to the points system. After 26 races, 12 drivers will still advance to the Chase, but the qualifying criteria have changed, as well as the number of base points that drivers receive at the points reset.
Only the top 10 drivers in points now automatically qualify for the Chase. They are joined by two "wild card" qualifiers, specifically the two drivers ranked from 11th through 20th in points who have the most race wins (with tiebreakers used if needed to select exactly two qualifiers). These drivers then have their base points reset to 2,000 instead of the previous 5,000, reflecting the greatly reduced points available from each race (a maximum of 48 for the race winner, as opposed to a maximum of 195 in the pre-2011 system). After the reset, the 10 automatic qualifiers receive 3 bonus points for each race win, while the wild card qualifiers receive no bonus.
The Chase for the Sprint Cup has been generally panned since its inception, as many drivers and owners have criticized the declining importance of the first 26 races, as well as very little change in schedule from year to year. Mike Fisher, the director of the NASCAR Research and Development Center, has been one of the more vocal critics of the system, saying that "Due to NASCAR having the same competitors on the track week in, week out, a champion emerges. In stick-and-ball sports, every team has a different schedule, so head-to-head series are necessary to determine a champion. That does not apply to auto racing."
National Rugby League
Play-offs are used to decide the premiers of the National Rugby League (NRL) in Australasia, where they are known as finals (also as semi finals or semis) - as in Australian rules football, the participating teams only come from within a single division, and the tournament is staged as single matches rather than series. Currently, in the NRL, eight teams qualify for the finals; starting with the 2012 season, the system was changed from the McIntyre Final Eight to the same system used by the AFL.
Previously, the term play-off was used in the NSWRL competition to describe matches which were played as tie breakers when two teams were tied for the lowest finals position.
The European Super League rugby league competition has used a play-off system to decide its champion since 1998. The original play-off format featured the top five highest-ranked teams after the regular season rounds. Starting in 2002, the play-offs added an extra spot to allow the top six to qualify. With the addition of two new teams for the 2009 season, the play-offs expanded to eight teams. The current format works like this:
- Qualifying Play Off 1: 1st vs 4th (winner receives a bye to week three)
- Qualifying Play Off 2: 2nd vs 3rd (winner receives a bye to week three)
- Elimination Play Off 1: 5th vs 8th (loser goes out)
- Elimination Play Off 2: 6th vs 7th (loser goes out)
- Preliminary Semi Final 1: QPO 1 Loser vs EPO 1 Winner
- Preliminary Semi Final 2: QPO 2 Loser vs EPO 2 Winner
- Qualifying Semi Final 1: QPO 1 Winner vs PSF 1 or PSF 2 Winner *
- Qualifying Semi Final 2: QPO 2 Winner vs PSF 1 or PSF 2 Winner *
- Grand Final: Winners of Qualifying Semi-Finals meet at Old Trafford
* Opponents decided by the QPO winner (in Week 1) that finished higher in the regular season
The two tiers directly below Super League, the Championship and Championship 1—formerly the National Leagues until the 2009 addition of a French club to the previously all-British competition—still use the old top six system to determine which teams are promoted between its levels. Before the 2008 season, when Super League established a franchising system and ended automatic promotion and relegation in Super League, the National Leagues also used this system to determine the team that earned promotion to Super League. The top six system involves the following:
- Elimination Semi-final A: 3rd vs 6th (4th vs 7th in Championship 1)
- Elimination Semi-final B: 4th vs 5th (5th vs 6th in Championship 1)
- Elimination Final: Winners of Elimination Semi-final A vs Winners of Elimination Semi-final B
- Qualification Match: 1st vs 2nd (2nd vs 3rd in Championship 1)
- Final Qualifier: Winners of Elimination Final vs Losers of Qualification Match
- Grand Final: Winners of Qualification Match vs Winners of Final Qualifier (in Super League, at Old Trafford)
In the Aviva Premiership the top four qualify for the play-offs, where they are not referred to by that name. The tournament is a Shaughnessy playoff: the team who finished first after the league stage plays the team who finished fourth, while the team who finished second plays the team who finished third in the Semi-Finals with the higher-ranked team having homefield advantage. The winners of these semi-finals qualify for the Premiership Final at Twickenham, where the winner will be champions of the league.
The second-level RFU Championship also uses play-offs—but unlike the Premiership, the Championship officially uses the term "play-offs". At the end of the league stage, top teams advance to a series of promotion play-offs. From the first season of the Championship in 2009–10 to 2011–12, the top eight teams advanced; starting in 2012–13, the top four will advance. A relegation play-off involving the bottom four teams existed through the 2011–12 season, but will be scrapped from 2012–13 on.
The original promotion play-offs divided the eight teams into two groups of four each, with the teams within each group playing a home-and-away mini-league. The top two teams in each group advanced to a knockout phase. In 2010, the semi-finals were one-off matches; in 2011, they became two-legged. The top team in each pool played the second-place team from the other group in the semi-finals; the winners advanced to the two-legged final, where the ultimate winner earned promotion to the Premiership (assuming that the team meets the minimum criteria for promotion).
In the first year of the play-offs in 2010, all eight teams started equal. After that season, it was decided to reward teams for their performance in league play. in 2011 and 2012, the top two teams at the end of the league stage carried over 3 competition points to the promotion play-offs; the next two teams carried over 2; the next two carried over 1; and the final two teams carried over none. (Points were earned using the standard bonus points system.)
The relegation play-offs, like the first stage of the promotion play-offs, were conducted as a home-and-away league, with the bottom team at the end of league play relegated to National League 1. As with the 2010 promotion play-offs, that season's relegation play-offs started all teams equal. in 2011 and 2012, each team in the relegation play-offs carried over 1 competition point for every win in the league season.
Beginning with the 2012–13 season, the pool stage of the promotion playoffs will be abolished, with the top four sides directly entering the semi-finals. The format of the knockout stage remains unchanged from 2012, with two-legged semi-finals followed by a two-legged final. At the other end of the table, the bottom club will be automatically relegated.
The highest level of French rugby union, the Top 14, expanded its playoffs starting with the 2009–10 season from a four-team format to six teams. In the new system, the top two teams after the double round-robin season receive first-round byes. The first-round matches involve the third- through sixth-place teams, bracketed so that 3 hosts 6 and 4 hosts 5. The winners then advance to face the top two teams in the semifinals, which are held at nominally neutral sites (a traditional feature in the French playoffs)—although in the 2011–12 season, the semifinals were held at Stadium de Toulouse, occasionally used as a "big-game" venue by traditional Top 14 power Stade Toulousain. The winners of these semifinals qualify for the final at Stade de France, where the winner will be champions of the league and receive the Bouclier de Brennus. Before 2009–10, the playoffs format was identical to that of the English Premiership with the exception of neutral sites for the semifinals.
The second level, Rugby Pro D2, uses the standard four-team playoff, but involving the second- through fifth-place teams, to determine the second of two teams promoted to the next season's Top 14 (the champions earn automatic promotion). The promotion semifinals are held at the home fields of the second- and third-place teams, and the promotion final is held at a neutral site.
The Pro 12, originally known as the Celtic League, adopted a four-team playoff starting with the 2009–10 season. The format is essentially identical to that of the English Premiership, except that the final is held at a ground chosen by the top surviving seed. Under league rules, the final venue must have a capacity of at least 18,000; In 2012–13, top seed Ulster could not use its regular home ground of Ravenhill for that reason.
Both domestic competitions in New Zealand rugby — the fully professional ITM Cup (formerly Air New Zealand Cup) and the nominally amateur Heartland Championship — use a playoff system to determine their champions, although the term "playoff" is also not used in New Zealand, with "finals" used instead.
Air New Zealand/ITM Cup
In the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup, the first season of the revamped domestic structure in that country, the top six teams after Round One of the competition automatically qualified for the finals, officially known as Round Three. Their relative seeding was determined by their standings at the end of the Top Six phase of Round Two. The teams that finished below the top six entered repechage pools in Round Two, with the winner of each pool taking up one of the final two finals slots. The seventh seed was the repechage winner with the better record, and the eighth seed was the other repechage winner.
From 2007 onward, the former Rounds One and Two were collapsed into a single pool phase of play in which all teams participated. In 2007 and 2008, the top eight teams advanced to the playoffs; in what was intended to be the final season of the Air New Zealand Cup format in 2009, the Shaughnessy format was used, with the top four advancing to the finals. The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) ultimately decided to stay with the previous format for the rebranded 2010 ITM Cup, with the same four-team playoff as in 2009. Starting in 2011, the NZRU split the ITM Cup into two seven-team leagues, the top-level Premiership and second-level Championship, and instituted promotion and relegation in the ITM Cup (a feature of the country's former National Provincial Championship).
The playoffs in each season format have consisted of a single-elimination tournament. The teams are bracketed in the normal fashion, with the higher seed receiving home-field advantage. In 2007 and 2008, the playoff was rebracketed after the quarterfinals, with the highest surviving seed hosting the lowest surviving seed and the second-highest surviving seed hosting the third surviving seed. The winners of these semifinals qualify for the Cup Final (2006–10) or Premiership/Championship Final (2011–), held at the home ground of the higher surviving seed. From 2011 onward, the winner of the Championship Final is promoted to the Premiership, replacing that league's bottom team.
Because the 2011 season ran up against that year's Rugby World Cup in New Zealand, the competition window was truncated, with only the top two teams in each division advancing to the final match. The Shaughnessy finals series returned to both divisions in 2012, and is currently used in non-World Cup years.
In the Heartland Championship, teams play for two distinct trophies — the more prestigious Meads Cup and the Lochore Cup. The 12 Heartland Championship teams are divided into two pools for round-robin play in Round One, with the top three in each pool advancing to the Meads Cup and the bottom three dropping to the Lochore Cup.
Round Two in both the Meads and Lochore Cups is an abbreviated round-robin tournament, with each team playing only the teams it did not play in Round One. The top four teams in the Meads Cup pool at the end of Round Two advance to the Meads Cup semifinals; the same applies for the Lochore Cup contestants.
The semifinals of both cups are seeded 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3, with the higher seeds earning home field advantage. The semifinal winners advance to their respective cup final, hosted by the higher surviving seed.
Throughout the pre-2011 history of Super Rugby—both in the Super 12 and Super 14 formats—the competition's organiser, SANZAR, held a Shaughnessy playoff involving the top four teams. The top two teams on the league ladder each hosted a semifinal, with the top surviving team hosting the final.
In May 2009, SANZAR announced that it would adopt an expanded playoff when the competition added a new Australian team for the 2011 season. The current Super Rugby playoff involves six teams—the winners of each of three conferences (Australia, New Zealand and South Africa conferences), plus the three non-winners with the most competition points without regard to conference affiliation.
The top two conference winners receive a first-round bye; each plays at home against the winner of an elimination match involving two of the four other playoff teams. As in the previous system, the final is hosted by the top surviving seed.
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Notes and references
- "Football League Regulations - Section 3". football league. Retrieved 31 March 2013.
- "Partnership of champions". CFL.ca. 2005-08-08. Retrieved 2006-12-03.
- "10-race Chase for the Cup crowns series champ". NASCAR 101. NASCAR. January 28, 2011. Retrieved March 6, 2011.
- "Championship: RFU to abolish play-off pool stages". BBC Sport. 2012-05-17. Retrieved 2012-05-17.