Last week, we started a new series on how to fix real-life American sports leagues. We started with the NBA and the NHL because, as their playoff seasons started, they were struggling to make the last few weeks' games of their regular seasons matter, to fans and players alike.
We ended Part 1 of this series by agreeing on these three principles:
- The fewer the games, the more each game matters.
- Without playoffs, regular season games are all that can matter.
- The more games that matter, the more games you will watch.
This is why you watch the Premier League for nine months and the NBA/NHL for two months, during their playoffs.
So what is the solution? We have one, and Premier League fans will recognize it. Up front, though, we need to say that we know this will never happen in real life. Even though playoffs are the problem, they are also the best part about American sports. If only people could think outside the box.
Luckily, we can.
In real life, this is what you have:
- 82-game regular season
- 16 of 30 teams making the playoffs
- Playoffs consist of best-of-7 series in a knockout tournament format
This is what you could have:
Since each conference (East and West) consists of 15 teams each, each team plays 6 games against the other 14 teams for a total of 84 games. That means each team plays two more games, and every team plays an identical schedule.
Identical schedules are so important. Currently, the NBA/NHL uses regular season wins and losses (and overtime losses in the NHL) to determine the best 16 playoff teams. But no one plays the same schedule. The unfairness in this system cannot be overstated.
If everyone plays an identical schedule (3 games at home and 3 games away against each of the other 14 conference teams), then we have a true idea of who the best team is in both the East and the West.
You can play around with this setup. Make the entire season a string of 6-game series, or 3-game series like in baseball. Or don't. The bottom line, though, is that everyone needs to play the same schedule by the end of the regular season.
- 84-game regular season
- 6 games (3 home, 3 away) against the other 14 games in the same conference
Since the regular season stays within the conferences, you can still have a championship series: an NBA Finals and a Stanley Cup Finals. After 84 games to determine who plays in the finals, you have a best-of-7 series to determine the champion.
By the way, the finals can be longer if you want. Make it a best-of-9 or any other odd number. The bottom line is that you have a finals series between your two best teams.
How is this system better than the real thing?
- It's fair. The regular season is equal for all teams within a conference.
- With less playoffs, the regular season games have a little more significance.
- Your champion is always one of your best teams. Right now, you basically start over with 16 of your 30 teams and play a tournament. This almost never results in a champion being the best, or even of the one best, teams.
Do you see the flaw in our system, though? It's not really there, but we know that some of you see it. When 15 teams in a conference are battling for just one spot in the finals, you are going to have a lot of teams that are not playing for anything at the end of the season.
That is true. But that's not really a new problem. In real life, both the really good teams who have clinched playoff spots and really bad teams who have no chance at the playoffs have this same problem.
The only regular season games worth watching at the end of the real-life season right now are the ones between mediocre teams trying to make it into the playoffs. In our system, the ones that matter most are between the best teams trying to make the finals.
Which one would you prefer?
Even though this problem presented above is not a real flaw, we have a solution for it. The NBA/NHL Cup, depending on your winter sport preference.
That's right. Like the FA Cup. Only these tournaments would be one-and-done knockout round tournaments concentrated at the end of the regular season to give all teams something to play for.
If you use a truly random draw, then teams could play teams from the opposite conference, which would be a novelty.
Try to picture it. The NBA/NHL Cup starts with a 32-team tournament bracket. Two teams (the best two teams?) get a bye. Everyone else is drawn into a March Madness-style bracket. On one really fun night, fifteen first-round "cup" games are played. The winners advance.
"Cup" nights are scheduled at regular intervals at the end of the season, interspersed with regular season games. Upsets occur in the one-and-done format. Cinderellas come to play and win. Teams that are distracted by the challenge of making the NBA or Stanley Cup Finals get beaten in a cup match.
It's everything we love about European soccer, brought into our American sports leagues. Yes, we lose the playoffs, but we replace it with a system that we will watch more often. And isn't that what we are trying to accomplish?
It is the best of a fair, common sense sports league format. Identical schedules, regular season importance, a novelty finals series, and a separate knockout tournament that does not diminish the regular season's importance.
Still not convinced? Struggling to picture it? Have no fear. We will simulate what a season in this format will look like. That is coming next in our fantasy sports series.