Women's Basketball Scores First With Better Playoffs
The Women's National Basketball Association will do away with conferences in its playoff seeding in the upcoming season, a major shift for the better. And as history shows, it's one that other major sports leagues may well follow.
Instead of ranking teams making the playoffs based on their records separated by the Eastern and Western conferences, the new system will put the top eight teams in the postseason regardless of region. It's a move many have been calling for the NBA to make, given the vast disparity in the quality of teams between the East and West. Last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder, with a 45-37 record, were denied making the playoffs in the tough West, but would have been the sixth seed in the East.
In fact, the NBA has already begun to move in that direction, restructuring its playoff format starting this season to do away with seeding based on divisions within the two conferences. Previously, the winner of each of the three divisions in both the East and the West was guaranteed a top-four seed in the postseason. Now, the top eight teams in each conference will be ranked based on record, regardless of division.
That makes the matchups at least more equitable and definitely more interesting, and the WNBA is taking it one step further. While the conversation right now is centered around whether the NBA will follow suit, let's hope the NFL and NHL do as well. (Things get more complicated with baseball, due to the designated-hitter distinction between the American and National Leagues, though that might finally, eventually fall by the wayside.)
Division- and conference-based seeding can be problematic when it rewards bad teams with a higher ranking based on region, not record. Geography is a pragmatic consideration, with travel and local rivalries, but shouldn't reward losing teams with a playoff spot. The most extreme examples of this were the 2010-11 Seattle Seahawks and the 2014-15 Carolina Panthers, the only two teams in NFL history to win their divisions with losing records. They not only made the playoffs, but had home-field advantage in the first round against teams with winning records. Both teams won their Wild Card matchups.
The very concept of divisions is a mere construct, creating artificial imbalances in strength of schedule, since leagues schedule more games between divisional rivals than non-divisional opponents. If you followed any of the teams in the NFC East this season, you know how lucky they all were to get to play each other so often. Proponents of keeping the divisions will point to geography and time zones, but even that's somewhat recent; recall that up until the NHL's realignment in 2013, the Detroit Red Wings were designated a Western Conference team. Until 2002 the Arizona Cardinals were part of the NFC East. Divisions didn't even exist in baseball until 1969.
So if, as Howard Megdal of Vice Sports puts it, "the NBA is using the WNBA as a laboratory" to test out getting rid of divisions and conferences, I'm all for it. This isn't FIFA using the Women's World Cup to experiment with artificial turf, a lower-grade and more dangerous surface than grass that would likely never make it into the men's tournament. Rather, the women's league has the chance to take the lead in transforming the structure of sports for the better.
Some of the greatest innovations in sports were developed in less-prominent leagues before making their way to the majors. The three-point shot was first used in an NCAA game and was later adopted by the American Basketball Association as a marketing gimmick before the NBA eventually brought it on, too. (ABA to Steph Curry: "You're welcome.") The American Football League had the two-point conversion for years before merging with the NFL, which would later adopt it, too. MLB is currently testing out pitch clocks in the minors.
The WNBA is a perfect place to initiate the death of conference-based seeding. It would be quite something if an oft-derided women's league ultimately changed the course of mainstream sports. In the push to what SBNation's Kevin Zimmerman dubbed "the anarchist's playoff bracket," it's women leading the revolution.
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