A Look At New WNBA Playoff Format

After months (and perhaps even years) of players, coaches, fans and others asking for a change—or at least a tweak—to the WNBA playoff format, the league officially announced a change to the postseason layout in mid-November

In the new format debuting in 2022, which will replace the existing layout that was in place since 2016, the WNBA will shift from having a 1-1-5-5 playoff breakdown to feature a new 3-5-5 format, including three rounds of series rather than any single-elimination games. Additionally, there will be no more byes awarded to top seeds going into the postseason. 

Shortly after the announcement was made by the league, many fans, players and coaches expressed their excitement over the new format. Even though it will include a decent amount of change beyond the regular season schedule, the fresh postseason layout and everyone’s reactions to it will be interesting to watch this upcoming fall. 

With the new format in place, let’s take a deeper dive into the changes made and consider whether the adjustments were on the money or overshot. 


Key Changes

The biggest change that will be present in the new playoff format is obviously the round-by-round breakdown, going from a 1-1-5-5 format to a 3-5-5 layout. The existing format was a four-round bracket with two single-elimination games followed by two best-of-five series. The new format will change to three rounds and will include a best-of-three first round series prior to the best-of-five semifinals and Finals rounds to finish out the postseason. 

In addition to the change in the overall round-by-round layout, the new format also features a few other key changes, including no more byes and no reseeding for teams.

When it comes to byes, the top four seeds in the standings received byes under the previous format, with the top two seeds earning a double bye into the semifinals and the third and fourth seeds receiving a single bye to automatically appear in the second single-elimination round. In the new format, that will be no longer. The first round will now start with matchups between the first and eighth seeds, fourth and fifth seeds, third and sixth seeds, and second and seventh seeds, and the winners of each series will move on to the semifinals. 

Previously, after each round, teams were reseeded and realigned as they continued to advance in the postseason, but that will also change in the new format in 2022. With no byes, teams will advance in the playoffs in a traditional fashion. 

The new format will also impact the length of the playoffs as the shift from a couple single-elimination rounds to a first-round series will stretch things out a bit for teams. In total, the new format will add up to eight playoff games.

While the overarching change that will be taking place in the postseason is the shift to a 3-5-5 layout, there are a decent number of other factors that will subsequently be different in the playoffs moving forward. 


Players, Coaches Get What They Asked For

Throughout the 2021 season, many players and coaches spoke out against the single-elimination games that were present within the existing format and resulted in teams playing in win-or-go-home contests in the first and second rounds. In the new format, those individuals pleading for change got exactly what they asked for as the WNBA removed the single-elimination aspect altogether. 

Regarding single-elimination games, these matchups offered a unique aspect to the postseason that mirrored the NCAA Tournament and provided the urgency of a do-or-die battle. Teams have been asking for a change mainly because some of the top squads have been eliminated from the playoffs in the first few rounds without an opportunity to bounce back.

With the new full-series, 3-5-5 format, teams get the opportunity to redeem themselves. Even though we haven’t seen the new format play out yet, this adjustment will likely result in the top teams advancing through each postseason more often than not.

The other thing that players, coaches and teams asked for and liked is the playoff bracket being seeded as an overall league rather than the top four teams in the Eastern and Western Conferences, which other leagues do. This continuation from the prior format allows the best overall teams a chance to continue to advance rather than having a potential Finals matchup between two East or West squads occurring in the semifinals. 

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It seems like the WNBA really did listen to the feedback from players and coaches when addressing the new format and what it would be. In the end, those players and coaches got most of what they asked for with the new changes. 


Too Much of a Change or Just Right?

Now with the updated playoff format in place for the near future, the biggest question remaining is whether the changes the WNBA made were too much or just right in an attempt to improve the postseason. 

Overall, the change is a good one and seems to be popular among many who take part in or follow the league. Regardless, it was time for some form of update to the playoffs

The change from a two single-elimination and two series breakdown to a full three-round series layout is a nice update. The single-elimination rounds were entertaining from a fan standpoint, but the new format benefits teams in an attempt to actually put together a postseason run. Keeping the bracket seeding based off of overall league standings rather than by conference is a nice element that was carried over from the previous format, and it will likely continue to result in the best overall teams advancing, which is what everyone wants. And the extra games, up to a possible eight additional matchups, is a great thing as well. 

It would have been nice to see the WNBA do something like a 1-3-5-5 postseason format, as explained in this proposal, keeping one single-elimination game in the first round. It would have also been nice to see some form of an inclusion of a bye to allow the top two seeds to get some form of advantage, but not having byes anymore isn’t the end of the world and eliminates the “rest or rust” conversation during the postseason. Another aspect that wasn’t bad in the old format was the reseeding of teams following each round, which gave the upper hand to the higher seeds. But like the byes, the reseeding not being a part of the new format isn’t a deal predator either.

After the 2021 season, there was one thing for certain: The WNBA playoff format was ready for change. The league certainly delivered that. There are pros and cons with every postseason layout throughout the sports world, and the WNBA is no exception. Overall, the new format has been well-received, and it is a nice change that will take place starting in 2022.

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