Over the last few seasons, and especially in 2021, the WNBA playoff format has been a hot topic among players and coaches in the league.
In 2016, the league changed its format for the WNBA Playoffs, removing Eastern Conference and Western Conference brackets in favor of one central bracket in which teams are seeded based on records and win percentages to determine the top eight teams that will make the playoffs. Additionally, the number of playoff rounds increased from three to four.
Within the postseason format that has been in place for six seasons, the first and second rounds include single-elimination contests, and the semifinals and Finals feature best-of-five series. The top two seeds in the standings receive a double bye into the semifinals, while the third and fourth seeds receive a single bye to automatically appear in the second round. After each round, teams are re-seeded and realigned as they continue to advance.
Although some think the current format is entertaining and offers an experience similar to March Madness in the first two rounds before getting into the semifinals and Finals series, others believe it’s time for a change to allow teams more of a chance to compete for a title rather than potentially being one-and-done in the postseason.
“This isn’t college. It is the WNBA. Extending the playoffs and making a series in all of the rounds would give us more viewers,” Seattle Storm’s Breanna Stewart said about the current playoff format, according to Winsidr’s James Kay.
This season, perhaps more than ever since the current format was established in 2016, WNBA players and coaches have become vocal about their desire for a change in the playoff format, calling on the league to strongly consider some sort of adjustment to give teams a better chance to battle in a series and ultimately for a championship.
“I think we shoot ourselves in the foot with the playoff format; it’s the best time of our season, but we’re limiting games played,” Minnesota Lynx head coach/general manager Cheryl Reeve said, according to ESPN. “We don’t get to see as many of the great series that people tend to get emotionally involved in.”
Sylvia Fowles said she's not a big fan of the #WNBA playoff format, saying she would like to have the series format back throughout the playoffs. She added she does like the way seeding is done right now though. #Lynx
— Mitchell Hansen (@M_Hansen13) September 18, 2021
One advantage to the current format, outside of the first two rounds being entertaining for fans with the win-or-go-home battles, is that it normally benefits the top two seeds by awarding those teams with a double bye to avoid the single-elimination rounds. It also offers some benefits to the third and fourth seeds as they only have to play in one single-elimination round.
The disadvantage to the current format is it doesn’t always result in the best teams advancing to the semifinals and potentially the Finals, especially if a team has a one-off game in either single-elimination rounds that results in them being eliminated without a chance to bounce back. If the ultimate goal of the WNBA is to get the best teams to advance throughout the postseason, changing the format to feature more series and less single-elimination games would help in achieving that.
“I think every coach and GM in the league is advocating for series,” Connecticut Sun head coach/general manager Curt Miller said, according to ESPN. “While this [system]benefits 1-2, you’ve seen some teams that have outstanding seasons—including us in 2017 and ’18—be a 3- or 4-seed, work their tails off for four or five months, and in one [disappointing game], you’re out.
“We’re a pro league, and we believe we deserve series. Hopefully, we’ll get there sooner than later. And just get rid of the byes.”
With the WNBA offseason now in full swing, it might be time for the league to finally look into changing the postseason format. If it does, here’s one proposal for what it could be changed to.
Proposed Change to Playoff Format
It’s not that the current playoff format is necessarily bad or in dire need of change, but some adjustments could be made to maintain entertainment value while allowing higher seeds, and teams in general, more of a chance to keep their seasons alive.
Instead of the current format of two single-elimination rounds followed by two best-of-five series en route to a champion being crowned, here’s one proposal to slightly adjust the format in a way that maintains some consistency but also improves the layout to benefit the teams playing in the second round in particular.
|Current vs. Proposed WNBA Playoff Format|
|Current Format||Proposed Format|
|First Round||Single elimination||Single elimination|
|Second Round||Single elimination||Best-of-three series|
|Semifinals||Best-of-five series||Best-of-five series|
|Finals||Best-of-five series||Best-of-five series|
As you can see, with the exception of the second round shifting from a single-elimination contest to a best-of-three series, there wouldn’t be much of a change in the proposed format compared to what’s in place currently. This format would add at most two additional games to the postseason.
A reason that it makes sense to change the second round to a best-of-three series—or to some form of series in general—is that it rewards the third and fourth seeds a little bit more. As things stand now, the third and fourth seed teams get a one-round bye but still have to play in a win-or-go-home game. A best-of-three series gives all of the teams in the second round more of a chance to avoid being eliminated with a single bad performance and is still short enough of a series to keep the entertainment aspect intact.
Outside of that second-round change, the rest of the postseason could remain as is. The bottom four seeds would still play in an opening-round, single-elimination game, which would allow that round to keep the exciting March Madness feel. Along with that, the top two seeds would still be rewarded with a double bye to advance to the best-of-five semifinals for a shot at moving on to the best-of-five championship series.
“We need to go to a 3-5-5 [series]format,” Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello stressed, according to ESPN. “So hopefully that will happen [in 2022].”
After a poll conducted on Twitter, it appears as though some fans are also on board with the idea of expanding the playoffs to an enhanced format. Many who weighed in were in favor of this proposal of a single-elimination round followed by a best-of-three series and two best-of-five series.
Working on a #WNBA playoff format story and I'm curious what you guys think the format should be changed to, if at all.
Current format is 2 single-elimination rounds (1st and 2nd), followed by 2 best-of-5 series (Semis and Finals).
What should the format should be? #WNBATwitter
— Mitchell Hansen (@M_Hansen13) October 25, 2021
Of course, there are other factors to consider when deciding if a change should be made to the playoff format, such as additional team travel and operations expenses, venue costs, TV expenditures, and more. Those considerations all matter, but they likely wouldn’t be too big of hurdles to overcome, and the benefits could be worth the extra investment by the league.
The impact of future expansion is one consideration that should not threaten the practicality of this potential playoff format. If an eventual league expansion takes place to add two or more teams, this proposed format should still remain the same, which would entail that the top eight teams reach the postseason and the bottom six or more teams miss the playoffs. As things stand now, the top eight seeds reach the postseason, while the bottom four teams miss the cut.
With the offseason underway after the Chicago Sky claimed the 2021 WNBA championship, the league has plenty to discuss and look into this offseason, including expansion, expanded rosters, travel concerns and more. Near the top of that list should also be altering the postseason format, and maybe the recent wave of players and coaches calling for a change will spark an adjustment soon.
“I think it’s great that there’s so much discussion about the playoff format, and I think it was so exciting this year to have these single-elimination games, have some underdogs make it into the WNBA Finals. … So it’s exciting. Single-elimination games are exciting,” WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert said during a WNBA Finals media availability.
“So we’re looking at that, whether we would retain first-, second-round single elimination. Would one of those go to a three-game series? Would we only go to a three-game series and then go into our semis and finals? … There are pros and cons to every different playoff format.”