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An athletic conference is a collection of sports teams, playing competitively against each other at the professional, collegiate, or high school level. In many cases conferences are subdivided into smaller divisions, with the best teams competing at successively higher levels. Conferences often, but not always, include teams from a common geographic region.
United States and Canada
In the United States and Canada, the National Hockey League (NHL) and National Basketball Association (NBA) are divided into the western (NHL, NBA) and eastern (NHL, NBA) conferences, with multiple divisions within each conference (three in each NBA conference, two in each NHL conference). In both leagues, a total of sixteen teams (eight from each conference) qualify for the leagues' postseason playoffs. In the NHL, division winners are guaranteed to qualify and are awarded the highest seeds, meaning they will have home-ice advantage in a given round against a non-division-winner. Starting with the 2015–16 season, NBA division winners are not guaranteed to qualify for the playoffs. The playoff spots instead go to the eight top teams in each conference by overall record, with home-court advantage in each playoff series based solely on record. Major League Soccer also divides itself into an Eastern and Western Conference, though it does not have divisions within them; it too allocates an equal number of teams from each conference to play for its MLS Cup Playoffs (since 2015, this has been six teams each).
The National Football League has an American Football Conference (AFC) and a National Football Conference (NFC). Both conferences have 16 teams, and each conference is divided into 4 divisions of 4 teams each. Each of the 4 division winners is guaranteed one of the top 4 seeds in the playoffs. These conferences, for the most part, derive from the fact that they were once separate organizations: the original National Football League and the 1960s American Football League; the two entities merged in 1970, with each league forming the basis of the NFC and AFC respectively.
Major League Baseball does not use the word "conference." Instead, it is divided into two separate leagues which are identical to the conferences listed above in all but name (which, although their operations have been integrated via the Commissioner of Baseball in modern times, were originally separately managed organizations with an intense rivalry). These are the American League and National League, with 15 teams each. Each league is divided into the Eastern, Central, and Western divisions, with all six divisions having 5 teams each. Each division winner is also guaranteed one of the top three seeds, even if their record is lower than the league's top wildcard team.
In all four sports, the champion of one conference (or league in MLB's case) plays the champion of the other conference for the final round championship, this is guaranteed to occur because the rules for the playoffs require play to be exclusively within the conference/league in all rounds before the final round, leaving only two teams for the finals (one from each conference/league) and the records of teams outside a conference/league are ignored, which can allow teams with inferior records to make the playoffs while teams in the other conference with better records do not get in. An extreme example of this has occurred twice in the NFL, when the 2010 Seattle Seahawks and 2014 Carolina Panthers reached the playoffs by winning their respective divisions despite losing records (7–9 for the Seahawks, 7–8–1 for the Panthers). These are the only two teams ever to qualify for the playoffs with losing records in seasons that were not shortened by strikes. In addition, teams' regular season schedules are weighted towards more games against other teams within their own division and to a lesser extent their own conference; NBA and NHL teams play at least one game against every other team in their league in a regular season, but in MLB and the NFL teams do not.
In college sports, the terms "league," "conference" and (generally at lower levels) "athletic association" can be used interchangeably to refer to a group of teams (generally eight to twelve colleges and/or universities, occasionally as high as sixteen) that regularly play against each other within a national governing body, the most significant of which is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Most of these groups (including the "Power Five" conferences that are primary partners in the College Football Playoff) refer to themselves as conferences, although the Horizon League, Ivy League, Patriot League, Pioneer League and Summit League use the word "league" instead, and another conference calls itself the Colonial Athletic Association. The NCAA itself is divided into divisions and subdivisions based on athletic scholarship eligibility, which can lead to redundancy when these conferences also have divisions of their own. For instance, the Southeastern Conference is part of NCAA Division I (specifically the Football Bowl Subdivision), but is itself also subdivided into an East and West division.
England and Wales
In English association football, the top level of non-League football—i.e., the level below the Premier League and the three tiers that make up The Football League—was known as the Football Conference from the 1986–87 season through the end of the 2014–15 season. In turn, from 2004, the Conference was divided into three leagues—Conference Premier, at the fifth tier of the English football pyramid, and Conference North and Conference South, which made up the sixth tier. Starting with the 2015–16 season, the Football Conference and its component leagues were renamed. The Football Conference and Conference Premier were both renamed "National League", and the two regional leagues were renamed National League North and National League South.
This does not strictly meet the definition indicated in the previous sections of this article, as each individual league mentioned in this section is a separate competition. The only times that teams from different leagues compete against one another in meaningful matches are in knockout cup competitions, such as the FA Cup (open to teams from all levels), the Football League Cup (open only to teams from the Premier League and The Football League), and the FA Trophy (open only to teams in the broader definition of the National League, plus the two tiers below it).
In rugby union, Super Rugby is the highest level of provincial competition in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, the highest domestic level in Japan, and the only professional domestic level in Argentina. From the creation of Super Rugby in 1996 through 2015, only Australia, New Zealand and South Africa participated; the competition added teams in the latter two countries in 2016. Since the 2011 season, it has operated on a conference system.
From 2011 through to 2015, the competition had one conference based in each of its three founding countries. The winner of each conference received a play-off spot, as did the three next best teams overall. With the addition of Argentina's Jaguares and Japan's Sunwolves for 2016, plus a permanent sixth franchise for South Africa, the competition reorganised into a new four-conference system. Australia and New Zealand form separate conferences within an Australasian group; the South African teams are joined by the Jaguares and Sunwolves in a "South African" group, with that group also being divided into two conferences. The winner of each conference continues to receive a play-off spot, with additional berths going to the next three best Australasian teams and the next best team of the South African group.
- Sports league
- Regulation of sport
- Outline of sports#General sports concepts
- List of college athletic conferences — in the United States