The criteria we’ll use for grading the best playoffs among the four major sports include:
- Length. How long do the playoffs take? Is it an excessive amount of time or just the right amount?
- Structure. How is the tournament structured? Is it built in a way that maximizes excitement?
- Ending. How does the tournament culminate?
With that in mind, let’s take a look at how the four major sports’ playoff tournaments stack up:
Basketball and hockey are about the same, with a few differences.
The NBA features a 16-team tournament – eight teams from the Western Conference, eight teams from the Eastern Conference. The NBA Playoffs begin in mid-April and finish up in mid-June. They end with the NBA Finals, pitting the winner of the East against the winner from the West.
There are a few issues with the NBA playoffs that put them fourth:
They’re too long. Teams have too much time in between playoff games because the networks don’t like to schedule games at the same time. This elongates the schedule, stretching it out over a two month period. This essentially makes the NBA playoffs feel like it’s own mini-season. While the quality of play is better than the regular season, it’s still too drawn out.
Too many teams make the playoffs. Half the league qualifies. While this makes it more challenging for the best teams to advance, it also cheapens the regular season a bit.
Another problem with the NBA playoff structure is that at times, the conferences have inequitable talent levels. For example, if the bulk of the best teams are in the West and one serious championship contender is in the East, that means that Western Conference teams have an unfair burden that the best teams in the Eastern Conference don’t face. The playoffs should be reseeded, not by conference affiliation, but by ranking the teams 1-16.
The NBA Finals usually have an exciting end, but as with the rest of the tournament, there are far too many days off in between games.
Hockey, like basketball, has a 16-team playoff tournament that runs from April to June. It also pits the Eastern Conference winner versus the Western Conference winner. It ends with the Stanley Cup Finals.
Essentially, the same issues that plague the NBA playoffs affect the NHL playoffs. The only slight edge is that the Stanley Cup Finals have a little more prestige than the NBA Finals.
The Stanley Cup trophy is one of the most recognizable trophies in all of sports and has a great amount of tradition surrounding it.
The NFL postseason consists of a 12-team tournament, with the NFC naming a champion and the AFC naming a champion. Four division winners and two Wild Card teams from each conference qualify with the top two teams in each conference receiving a first-round bye.
The playoffs take up the entire month of January and end with the Super Bowl in the first couple weeks of February. A few reasons why the NFL has the second-best playoff format:
The entire playoff run takes up a month of time, with a manageable number of games taking place each weekend of the playoffs. This provides big chunks of action, but it’s hard having to wait a week between games.
Less than half the league makes it, making the regular season more meaningful. Only two teams in each conference qualify as Wild Card teams, placing increased importance on winning the division title.
The teams with the best records receive a first-round bye, rewarding regular-season success. Although, some would argue that this creates a situation where teams get rusty from time-off.
The championship game – the Super Bowl – is the most anticipated sporting events of the year. Even non-sports fans regularly tune in to watch this game.
MLB has 10 teams qualify for postseason play – five in the NL and five in the AL. This includes three division winners and two Wild Card qualifiers. The Wild Card teams in both leagues face off in a one-game, loser-goes-home playoff. The tournament takes up the month of October and ends with the World Series.
During the MLB playoffs, literally every pitch matters. Every game there are games within the game. It’s like a big chess match. Here are the reasons why baseball has the best postseason of them all:
- Division winners are rewarded, while Wild Card winners have to prove themselves in a one-game playoff. The Wild Card games also make for two of the most exciting days of the baseball season.
- The division series is short – only a five-game series.
- The whole tournament takes only a month to play out.
- The World Series, especially when it goes seven games, features some of the most exciting baseball of the season between the MLB’s two top teams.