by Chris Foss
It’s time for most American professional and college sports to find some way to shorten their postseasons. We’re in the middle of the seemingly endless NBA and NHL postseasons, each of which consist of four rounds of best-of-seven series, and last for approximately two months—1/3 the length of each league’s regular season. Last year’s MLS Cup consisted of just 16 matches, but lasted seven weeks. Postseason creep has affected even the shorter postseasons. The MLB playoffs still typically last just about a month, but they now inch into November. NCAA Basketball March Madness, meanwhile, is creeping at the other end with its recent expansion in 2011 to 68 teams adding a couple of extra days to the start of the three-and-a-half week extravaganza. The College Football Playoff and the succession of “Named For a Company You’ve Never Heard Of” Bowls that have proliferated in recent years have slowly, but surely, extended the NCAA Division I football postseason to just over three weeks in length. NFL ownership has wisely resisted the temptation to expand its playoff field—for now.
Things weren’t always like this. Take the NBA, for example. After the league consolidated into two divisions in 1951, it had three rounds of playoffs: two best-of-three division semifinals, two best-of-five division finals, and a best-of-seven NBA Finals, ending the season on April 21. In 1956, the slate concluded on April 7! By the late 1960s, however, the division semifinals expanded to best-of-five, and 1968 featured the first NBA season to end in May. With expansion, the NBA realigned to four divisions in two conferences in 1970, and the playoffs swelled as well. In 1975 the NBA added a wild-card round to the playoffs, but granted byes to the top-seeded teams in each conference. In 1976 the Finals ended in June for the first time.
There was an abortive attempt, it seems, to do something about NBA postseason creep. In 1980 the league pushed the start of the postseason up to early April to get the season to end by mid-May. For reasons unknown, however, by 1982 the playoffs started again in mid-April, about where things stand now. In 1984, the NBA turned the wild-card round into a best-of-five set featuring all of its playoff qualifiers (no more first-round byes), and expanded that round to a best-of-seven in 2003. In the last thirty years, only one NBA Finals has even started in May. A postseason that once took as little as three weeks to complete now sometimes lasts over two months.
Postseason creep and bloated playoffs cheapen teams’ regular-season accomplishments. Long postseasons do not reward teams’ work over the long haul, but too often see teams which struggled during the regular season, yet get the “hottest” during the playoffs end up the winner. Good recent examples of this include the 2005 Pittsburgh Steelers, the 2010 Green Bay Packers and San Francisco Giants, the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, the 2012 Baltimore Ravens, the 2015 NCAA men’s Duke Blue Devils, and the 2015 Portland Timbers. These teams hung in there for most of their regular seasons, before turning it on in the playoffs and winning it all. Of course, it’s good for an underdog to win occasionally. But the fact that low-seeded postseason teams have been frequent championship winners even in the relatively short NFL season highlights that there is a postseason creep problem facing professional sports in general, one which threatens to make the regular season totally worthless.
As teams and players increasingly recognize the relatively growing meaninglessness of the regular season, they adjust by adopting measures that further cheapen the regular season and hurt the fan experience. Fans and commentators concerned about the NBA’s recent trend toward “DNP-Rest” among its superstars forget that this has been common practice among MLB position players for decades. In the NFL, late-season rest isn’t even a luxury, but is often critical to a team’s playoff success; however, it makes buying a Week 16-17 ticket a gamble. You’d better really be a die-hard fan, perhaps willing to endure not just a bad or depleted team at the end of the year, bud bad weather as well. If the league were to expand the regular season further, as is perennially rumored, “DNP-Rest” might start happening earlier in the season. After Tom Brady’s 2016 experience, furthermore, he probably wishes he’d get suspended every year, since he had less wear and tear during the playoffs. Granted, not every team is as stacked as those Patriots to be able to withstand his absence, but some might take a page from Brady’s book and unleash their top weapons later in the season.
There are a number of potential consequences of the reduction in importance of the regular season. Fans tiring of increasing ticket prices, traffic, and even concerns about random violence or domestic terrorism may start staying home from games, especially if their favorite stars are going to be riding the pine; or, in a long playoff run, they might wait until late to tune in. With busier lives than ever, ESPN GameCast is sometimes more than enough to keep fans up to date on their favorite teams, especially during midseason, but perhaps even during early rounds of extended playoff series. YouTube recaps of games and even entire games can be found almost immediately after their conclusion. For now, fans keep packing playoff games, but if postseason creep continues, there’s going to be a reckoning and an embarrassment for owners or school presidents when their team’s playoff telecasts reveal less-than-full stadiums. Most regular season games across the sports landscape, unless they fall on the weekends, already feature stadiums and arenas that are far less than full.
With these problems and consequences in mind, here are my specific recommendations, all of which entail maintaining the leagues’ current regular-season lengths, but reducing the number of postseason games:
NBA: Maintain four rounds of playoffs, but eliminate divisions, reduce the first two rounds to best-of-three and best-of-five, and allow the No. 1 (and possibly the No. 2) seed in each conference a bye to the second round.
NHL: Implement the above changes, and end the sudden-death overtime in each round except the Stanley Cup Finals. For all other playoff games that end in a draw, play one full-length overtime, then go to soccer-style penalty shootout to decide the winner thereafter. It would be fun to see a hockey conference final come down to a shootout, but it would cheapen a Stanley Cup Final too much to see it end that way.
MLB: These playoffs don’t need to be shortened, but MLB should stop the playoff creep into November; otherwise, the game risks going from a Fall Classic to a Winter Classic if we keep having teams from the northern U.S. in the World Series.
NFL: There’s not much the NFL can do, except perhaps to end the bye between the championship games and the Super Bowl.
NCAA Men’s D-1 Basketball: Get rid of the “First Four” games. Nobody cares and nobody watches. If there’s no reason to have something, don’t have it.
NCAA Men’s FBS Football: 1) Eliminate conference championship games--that will make for some lame-duck games at year’s end, but it’ll make midseason regular games count for even more than they do now. 2) Enlarge the CFP format to somehow guarantee that each of the Power Five conference winners get in the playoff. 3) End the CFP on the Monday night after New Year’s Day weekend, instead of in mid-January, as has now become customary.
These suggestions won’t solve every problem, but if nothing else, they would help shake up the top American men’s professional and college postseason tournaments. Realistically, business interests make all of these reforms unlikely in the short term. In the long run, however, it’s possible that teams and leagues could lose money as fans lose interest due to postseason creep. Better to check it now, then, lest sports owners and organizations reap what they sow.
 To clarify, the Power Five conferences are generally considered to be the Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC, and ACC. Every five years, I would recommend this be up for reconsideration and renegotiation through some means determined by the NCAA—say, for example, because one P5 conference dramatically contracts, while another non-P5 conference gets bigger. Bottom line, the definition of what is a P5 conference shouldn’t be hard and fast.