Are There Too Many Playoff Teams in Sports?

On Tuesday, November 10th, NFL owners unanimously approved a contingency plan to expand the NFL playoffs from 14 to 16 teams. The new rule was simply precautionary and would only be put into effect if all 32 teams did not complete their entire 16 game schedule. With the recent spike in positive COVID-19 tests around the league, the owners decided this would be for the best. Between November 1-7, 15 players and 41 staff members tested positive for COVID-19. The 56 new positive tests during that time period are double the amount of positive tests of any other seven day period during the season.

Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak, NFL owners agreed to expand the playoff format from 12 to 14 teams. They also changed the format from the top two seeds in each conference getting a bye to only the top seed in each receiving a week off. Expanding the playoff format from 12 to 14 teams is expected to raise revenues by nine figures. No, you did not read that wrong, NINE figures.

Expanding playoffs is nothing new to any of the four major sports leagues. Most recently, in 2012 Major League Baseball expanded their playoff format from eight teams to 10. The MLB’s expansion added a second wild card team accompanied with a one game playoff. The NBA has not expanded their payoff format since 1984, but over roughly the last half decade there have been rumors of more expansion. Earlier this year, the outspoken Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban suggested to the other NBA owners that the league expand their playoffs from 16 to 20 teams. Cuban suggested this expansion because of how much stronger the Western Conference has been for the last decade or so. In years past we have seen teams from the Eastern Conference sneak in the playoffs with sub .500 records. In 2014, the Atlanta Hawks made the playoffs in the East as the eight-seed with a record of 38-44. That same year in the West the Dallas Mavericks were awarded the eight-seed with a record of 49-33. If the Mavericks played in the Eastern Conference, they would have been awarded the three-seed and home court advantage in at least the first round.

If this proposal from Mark Cuban were put into place for the 2014 NBA season, the Cleveland Cavaliers would have made the playoffs with the extremely underwhelming record of 33-49. This leads us to the question, how many playoff teams are too many? This question most certainly varies from sport to sport. Baseball has the luxury of being able to play every day. Basketball and hockey work well playing every other day, but football is a sport where teams can only play once a week. If we continue to add teams in the NFL playoffs, then the season could get dreadfully long, especially on players who have been vocal about not wanting the season to be longer.

I for one cannot see anyone complaining about more NFL games. It is by far the most popular sport in the country. Even with all of the injuries and safety precautions going into place, average viewership has gone up every year since 2017, and the Super Bowl is the most watched event in the world every single year. At some point, however, the viewers and hopefully the owners must take a step back and say “this is far too many playoff teams.”

From an owner’s perspective, they must love this new change. This can bring in millions of dollars to their pockets every year. As stated earlier, however, at some point it has to be too many teams. The on-field product will get watered down and fans will not want to watch. In the NBA, since they expanded in 1984, only five times has an eight seed defeated a one seed. And, not for nothing, one of those series included the brutal Derrick Rose injury during his MVP season. Zero of those eight seeds made it to the NBA Finals. In the NHL, since 2001, an eight seed has defeated a one seed six times, and one has even won the Stanley Cup. That team was the Los Angeles Kings in 2012. The MLB has seen seven teams win the World Series after making the playoffs as a wild card team. Finally, in the NFL, since they introduced a wild card in 1970, just ten of those teams won a Super Bowl, only two of which being the sixth and final seed. A wild card team in the NFL has not even made the Super Bowl since 2013.

So, as we can see with the information above, just sneaking into the playoffs obviously does not give you very good odds of making or winning a championship. Simply put, the teams with the best record in the regular season more likely than not end up winning the championship. I know we all love seeing Cinderella stories and magical runs, but the fact is that they are few and far between. In the past 20 years, the NBA team with the best record in the regular season has gone on to win the championship seven times. The number one seed in the NFL reached the Super Bowl 51.7 percent of the time since 1990. Since 2002, in every major sport the number one or two seed has at least made the championship 47 percent of the time, and that low number accounts for Major League Baseball. In the NFL that number rises to 71 percent.

The matter of fact is that more often than not the best teams in sports make the playoffs, but no one really bats an eyelash when leagues expand their formats because no sports fan is going to say “no” to the idea. More teams just means a better chance at your team making the playoffs, and as the old adage says “once you get in, anything can happen” (but more often than not, the best teams win). Fans love it because it gives them that small sliver of hope that they can win a championship, and owners love it because it means more money in their pocket, even if they do not make the playoffs because of revenue sharing. But, if you ask me, at some point we need to say enough is enough. I love dominance of one seeds and I love underdogs, but we cannot reward teams that are not deserving. Teams with winning percentages below .500 should not be allowed in the playoffs. The NBA and NHL are seeing far too much of that because more than half of their teams qualify for the playoffs. The NFL is getting dangerously close to that point. Major League Baseball is the only major sports league left where it is difficult to make the playoffs, and it still feels like it has to be earned. This weekend we are going to have to watch the 8-8 Chicago Bears play the 12-4 New Orleans Saints, and most likely get their doors blown off, and the same goes for the 7-9 Washington Football Team, who because of a historically bad division will get to host the 11-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

There are way too many playoff teams that water down the actual product of the games being played. I do not want to watch Mitchell Trubisky play a meaningful down anymore this season. Of course, I and many other sports fanatics are going to watch because we only get so many of these games, but the Chicago Bears were not deserving of a playoff spot, and they are not the first professional sports franchise to be undeserving. Leagues will never backtrack on their expansions because the money coming in is far too much. I wish they would, but they won’t. Good teams are not getting the recognition that they deserve because of greedy owners and fans. And as one of those greedy fans, at the end of the day I’ll take more sports than no sports. There are too many playoff teams, but I am brainwashed and still love it.

(Cover Photo: Matt Marton/USA TODAY Sports)

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