Playoff

Playoff

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A playoff or final in sports is a game or series of games played after the regular season is over with the goal of determining a league champion, or a similar accolade.

Playoffs consist of the teams that won the NL and AL division, plus the two wildcard teams. Playoffs will last up to seven games at the most, and four at the least. The exeption is a one game playoff when the two teams in a division are tied. They'll play and the winner will go to the playoffs.

In the U.S., the vast distances and consequent burdens on cross-country travel have led to regional groupings of teams, usually called divisions. Generally, during the regular season, teams play more games against opponents that are within their own grouping than those outside it. Since every team has not necessarily had a chance to prove itself against every other team, a playoff is necessary every season. Any team that wins its grouping is eligible to participate in the playoffs. As playoffs became more popular, they were expanded to allow teams that finished second or even lower in the grouping to participate. If a team has to be the best of all the lower-ranked teams, these teams are known as wild card teams, such as in the Major League Baseball system.

Playoffs in the National Basketball Association

The present organization known as the National Basketball Association, then called the BAA (Basketball Association of America), had its inaugural season in 1946–1947.

In the current system, eight clubs from each of the league's two conferences qualify for the playoffs, with separate playoff brackets for each conference. In the 2002–03 season, the first-round series were expanded from best-of-5 to best-of-7; all other series have always been best-of-7. In all series, home games alternate between the two teams in a 2-2-1-1-1 format, except for the NBA Finals, in which the format is 2-3-2.

The 2-3-2 finals format was adopted for the 1985 finals, copying the format that was then in effect in the National Hockey League. Prior to 1985, almost all finals were played in the 2-2-1-1-1 format (although the 1971 finals between Milwaukee and Baltimore were on an alternate-home basis, some 1950s finals used the 2-3-2 format, and the 1975 Golden State-Washington and 1978 and 1979 Seattle-Washington finals were on a 1-2-2-1-1 basis). Also, prior to the 1980s, East and West playoffs were on an alternate-home basis except for those series when distance made the 2-2-1-1-1 format more practical.

Teams are seeded according to their regular-season record. The three division champions and best division runner-up receive the top four seeds, with their ranking based on regular-season record. The remaining teams are seeded strictly by regular-season record.

However, the NBA system differs from other sports playoffs in the fact that division champions are not guaranteed home-court advantage at any time in the playoffs, as home-court advantage is decided strictly on regular-season record, without regard to seeding.

The NBA playoffs are often critized for having too many teams, as it is common to see losing teams in the playoffs.

See NBA Playoffs and 2008 NBA Playoffs for more information and the current NBA postseason.

Playoffs in the National Football League

The National Football League divided its teams into divisions in 1933 and began holding a single playoff championship game between division winners. In 1950 the NFL absorbed three teams from the rival All-America Football Conference, and the former "Divisions" were now called "Conferences", echoing the college use of that term. In 1967, the NFL expanded and created four divisions under the two conferences, which led to the institution of a larger playoff tournament. After the merger with the American Football League, the NFL began to use a single wild card team in each conference in its playoffs, in order to produce eight contenders out of six divisions; this was later expanded so that more wild card teams could participate.

Major league baseball, recognizing the great success of the NFL's post-season system, also created divisions in each league when it expanded at the end of that decade, leading to its first use of regular post-season playoffs to determine league champions. Further expansion by baseball led to its own adoption of the concept of wild card teams.

In 2002 the NFL added its 32nd team, the Houston Texans, and significantly reshuffled its divisional alignment. The league went from 6 division winners and 6 wild card spots to 8 division winners and only 4 wild card qualifiers.

The winners of each division automatically earn a playoff spot and a home game in their first rounds, and the two top non-division winners from each conference will also make the playoffs as wild-card teams. The top two teams with the best records in the regular season get a first round bye, and the bottom two division winners each play one of the wild-card teams. The winners of the wild-card games then play one of the two bye teams. The winners of these two games go to the conference championships, and the winner of that game will face each other conference champion in the Super Bowl.

Playoffs in NASCAR (stock car racing)

NASCAR implemented a playoff system beginning in 2004, that they coined the "Chase for the NEXTEL Cup." Currently, only NASCAR's top series uses the playoff system. In the original version of the Chase (2004-2006), following the 26th race of the season, all drivers in the top 10 and any others within 400 points of the leader got a spot in the 10-race playoff. Like the current system, drivers in the Chase had their point totals adjusted. However, it was based on the number of points at the conclusion of the 26th race. The first-place driver in the standings led with 5,050 points; the second-place driver started with 5,045. Incremental five-point drops continued through 10th place with 5,005 points). In addition, drivers received 180 points for winning a race, 5 bonus points for leading the most laps, and 5 bonus for leading a single lap.

The current version of the Chase was announced by NASCAR chairman and CEO Brian France on January 22, 2007. After 26 races, the top 12 drivers advance to contend for the points championship and points are reset to 5000. Each driver within the top 12 gets an additional 10 points for each win during the "regular season," or first 26 races, thus creating a seeding based on wins. The Chase consists of 10 races and the driver with the most points at the conclusion of the 10 races is the NEXTEL Cup Series Champion. Drivers can earn 5 bonus points for leading the most laps, and 5 bonus points for leading a single lap. Brian France explained why NASCAR made the changes to the chase:

"The adjustments taken [Monday] put a greater emphasis on winning races. Winning is what this sport is all about. Nobody likes to see drivers content to finish in the top 10. We want our sport -- especially during the Chase -- to be more about winning."

Beginning with the 2008 season, the playoff will become known as the "Chase for the Sprint Cup" due to the NEXTEL/Sprint merger.

Playoffs in Major League Baseball

Major League Baseball is the oldest of the major professional sports, dating back to the 1870s. As such, it is steeped in tradition. The final series to determine its champion has been called the "World Series" (originally "World's Championship Series" and then "World's Series") as far back as the National League's contests with the American Association during the 1880s.

The major leagues themselves do not use the term "playoffs" for post-season action. MLB has stuck with "____ Series" for each level of its post-season tournament (another term MLB does not use). In the Majors the singular term "playoff" is reserved for the rare situation in which two teams find themselves tied at the end of the regular season and are forced to have a playoff game (or games) to determine which team will advance to the post-season. Thus, in the Majors, a "playoff" is actually part of the regular season and thus can be called a "Pennant playoff". However, the plural term "playoffs" is conventionally used by fans and media to refer to baseball's post-season tournament (and has always been used by Minor league baseball for its own post-season play), so this article will defer to that usage.

Baseball has always been the least generous sport in allowing teams to enter its playoff tournament, and paradoxically so, given that it also has by far the lengthiest season in terms of games (currently 162, and it has been over 150 games every season since 1920, with the exception of 1981, 1994, and 1995). It is the only one of the four major US professional leagues to have never had a losing team in its playoffs. It came close in 1994 when the Texas Rangers were in first place but well below .500, but a strike canceled the post-season. They came close again in 2006 when the San Diego Padres finished just one game over .500 and won the NL West. In 1903, the two modern Major League Baseball leagues began annual post-season play with a one-round system in which the American League team with the best record faced the National League team with the best record in a best-of-seven series (in 1903, 1919, 1920, and 1921 it was best-of-9) called the World Series; however, there was no 1904 Series because the National League Champion, the New York Giants, refused to play. This single-tiered approach persisted through 1968, even with the expansions of 1961-1962 that made it necessary for two teams each year to finish their seasons in ignominious double-digits, as it were, in tenth place.

Adoption of two-round playoff system

In 1969, both leagues expanded to twelve teams and this made it harder to make the World Series because there were more teams competing for the AL and NL pennants. To remedy this, and imitating the other major sports' long-standing playoff traditions, Major League Baseball split each league into Eastern and Western divisions (still fewer than the current 3), creating four divisions overall and no worse than a sixth place finish for any team in any division. This created a new round of playoffs, which was dubbed the League Championship Series (LCS), a best-of-five series. In 1985 the LCS was expanded to a best-of-seven series.

Current playoff system

By 1994, further expansion was making it very hard to make the playoffs again. Major League baseball went through re-alignment again, expanding to three divisions (East, Central, West) in each league. Because only allowing divisional winners in the playoffs would make an odd number of playoff teams in each league, three, the league also added wild-cards to each league, again imitating the original post-merger NFL approach. This system was in place for 1994, but the players' strike canceled the post-season. The system was realized on the field in 1995. The wild card team would be the team with the best record in each league of all the teams that did not win their division. This doubled the playoff contenders in each league from two to four, and from four to eight teams overall. The extra playoff teams meant another elimination round was needed. This new round would become the new first round of the playoffs, the best-of-five, Division Series. This term had first been used for the extra round required in 1981 due to the "split-season" scheduling anomaly following the mid-season players' strike. The three-tiered playoff tournament is the system currently in use. In the event the wild card team is from the same division as the best divisional champion; the 2nd best divisional champ plays the wildcard team and the top divisional champ plays the bottom divisional champ.

Some baseball purists (citation needed) do not like the idea that teams that were not consistently good enough to win their division can still win the World Series. Purists also used a similar argument when LCS teams with lesser records advanced to the Series. However, the wild card approach has proven to be a great success with the "mass market", providing the potential for a good deal of extra drama during the final month of the season, although admittedly it has sometimes taken away from the normal "pennant race" drama when the two best teams in the league happen to be in the same division. The wild card qualifier (#4 seed) has actually won more World Series than any other seed since wildcards became eligible in 1995. They have won a total of four World Series, and won three years in a row from 2002-2004, with the 2002 World Series being between both wildcards.

There has been talk that an extra wild card team should be added to each league, and if a one-game playoff should be added before the Division Series, though as of the mid-2000s this does not have much traction. This would be the logical next step, if and when baseball expands its playoffs again. A downside to this idea is that, even with the three-tiered system, the World Series is stretching to Halloween or even into early November (in 2001). Adding yet another tier — even for a single game — would likely push the warm-weather sport's season into November every year with the potential for snow delays in northern stadiums like Coors Field in Denver, Colorado, but this could possibly be remedied by starting the season the last week of March instead of the first week of April. MLB Commissioner Bud Selig in an interview on FSN, said that although he is not opposed to an extra wildcard team in each league, he doesn't want to change the playoffs yet because "the current system is working so well."

Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane, for his part, has called for each league's postseason tournament to be seeded strictly by regular-season record without regard to whether a team has won its division. No major North American sports league currently uses this system in its purest form, though the NBA comes very close to doing so by treating the highest non-division team as a division winner (allowing it a higher seeding than some division winners) and awarding homecourt advantage based on record. Had Beane's proposal been in place in 2006, both leagues would have seen Division Series matchups between a division champion and a wild-card team from its division — impossible under present rules, which forbid intradivisional matchups in the first round. If it had been in place in 2004, the wild-card Boston Red Sox, with the second-best record in the American League, would have had home-field advantage in the Division Series over a division champion, which is also impossible under present rules. Also note that neither the 2000 New York Yankees nor the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals, both of whom won the World Series in real life, would have qualified for the postseason under Beane's proposal.

Home-field advantage

The World Series used several different formats in its early years. Initially it generally followed an alternating home-and-home pattern, except that if a seventh game was possible, its site was determined by coin toss prior to the sixth game. In 1924 the Series began using a 2-3-2 format, presumably to save on travel costs, a pattern which has continued to this day with the exception of a couple of the World War II years when wartime travel restrictions compelled a 3-4 format. From the start of the 2-3-2 format through the 2002 season, home field advantage generally alternated between leagues each year. Prior to the 1994 strike, the National League champion received home field advantage on even numbered years and the American League champion on odd numbered years; these were reversed for 1995-2002 (because 1994 would've been the NL's turn to have home field). That changed starting in 2003.

The 2002 All Star Game had ended in a tie, much to the displeasure of both fans and sportswriters who complained about a lack of intensity and competitiveness on the part of the players. This hit especially close to home for Commissioner Bud Selig, as the game had been played in his home city of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In response, to give some real meaning to the game, in 2003 MLB began assigning home field advantage in the World Series to the winner of that year's All-Star Game, which is typically held in mid-July.

Coupled with the American League's scheduled home field advantage in the 2002 Series, this has given the American League the extra home game in each World Series since. It did not help the Yankees in 2003 or Tigers in 2006, but arguably it gave a jump start to the Red Sox in 2004 and 2007 and the White Sox in 2005, all three of which ended up sweeping their opponents in the World Series.

League Championship Series

Until 1998, the LCS alternated home-field advantage with a 2-3 format in the best-of-5 era (1969-84) and a 2-3-2 format when it went to best-of-7 (1985-present). Now home-field advantage goes to the team with the best record unless it is a wild card qualifier.

In two instances, however, the switching from the best-of-5 to the best-of-7 format shaped the outcomes of the 1985 and 1986 American League Championship Series. In 1985, the Toronto Blue Jays had a 3 games to 1 lead on the Kansas City Royals, but lost that series in seven games. The same occurred to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (then as the California Angels) in 1986; they led the Boston Red Sox 3 games to 1, but lost Games 5, 6, and 7. Had the best-of-5 format been in place, both Toronto and California would have each won their first American League pennant (Toronto would win its first pennant in 1992, while the Angels franchise would win its first in 2002). Then again, had the 2-3 format remained, Kansas City would not have won the 1985 World Series and Bill Buckner would have been spared his costly error in the 1986 World Series.

Division Series

Until 1998 the Division Series rotated which of the three division champions would not have home field advantage, with the wild card never having it. Now the two division winners with the best records in each league have home field, with the least-winning divisional winner and the wild card not having home field. The DS used a 2-3 format until 1998 and now uses a 2-2-1 format. This is seen as a much fairer distribution of home field advantage because previously under the 2-3 format, the team hosting the first two games had absoultely no chance of winning the series at home. With the current 2-2-1 format however, both teams have the home field advantage in a way. While one team gets to host three games (including the critical first and last game), the other team does get two chances out of three (games 3 and 4) of winning the series on its home field. Also, the team earning homefield is assured of hosting two games instead of the lesser record team being guaranteed the two games.

Playoffs in the National Hockey League

The National Hockey League has always used a playoff tournament to determine its champion, generally opening up its playoff games to a much larger number of teams, including those with a losing regular season record in some years. Because of the grueling nature of the sport, the Stanley Cup playoffs is considered to be one of the hardest championships in all of professional sports to win.

From the NHL's inception to 1920, when ownership of the Stanley Cup was shared between the NHL and the Pacific Coast Hockey Association the regular season was divided into two halves, with the top team from each half moving on to the league finals, which was a two-game total goals series in 1918 and a best-of-seven series in 1919. In 1920, the Ottawa Senators were automatically declared the league champion when the team had won both halves of the regular season. The two halves format was abandoned the next year, and the top two teams faced off for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals series.

At the time, the NHL champion would later face the winners of the PCHA and, from 1921, the Western Canada Hockey League in further rounds in order to determine the Stanley Cup champion. During this time, as the rules of the NHL and those of the western leagues differ (the main difference being that NHL rules allowed five skaters while the western leagues allowed six), the rules for each game in the Stanley Cup Final alternated between those of the NHL and the western leagues. Before the WCHL competed for the Stanley Cup, the Stanley Cup Finals was a best-of-five series. Following the involvement of the WCHL, one league champion was given a bye straight to the finals (a best-of-three affair starting in 1922), while the other two competed in a best-of-three semifinal. As travel expenses were high during these times, it was often the case that the NHL champions were sent west to compete. In a dispute between the leagues in 1923 about whether to send one or both western league champions east, the winner of the PCHA/WCHL series would proceed to the Stanley Cup Finals while the loser of the series would face the NHL champions, both series being best-of-three.

In 1924 the NHL playoffs expanded from two to three teams (with the top team getting a bye to the two-game total goal NHL finals), but because the first-place Hamilton Tigers refused to play under this format, the second and third place teams played for the NHL championship in a two-game total goals affair. The Stanley Cup Finals was returned to the best-of-five format the same year.

With the merger of the PCHA and WCHL in 1925 and its collapse in 1926, the NHL took sole control of the Stanley Cup, and from this point the NHL playoffs and the Stanley Cup playoffs are considered synonymous. The NHL was subsequently divided into the Canadian and American divisions until the 1937-38 season. For 1927, six teams qualified for the playoffs, three from each division, with the division semifinals and finals being a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Final a best-of-five affair. In 1928, the playoff format was changed so that the two teams with identical division ranking would face each other (ie. the first place teams played each other, the second place teams play each other, and likewise for the third place teams). The first place series was a best-of-five affair, with the winner proceeding to the best-of-three Stanley Cup Finals, while the others was a two-game total goals series. The winner of the second and third place series played each other in a best-of-three series, with the winner earning the other berth to the Stanley Cup Finals. This format had a slight modification the following year, where the semifinal series became a two-game total goals affair and the Stanley Cup Finals became a best-of-five series. The two-game total goals format was abolished in 1937, with those series being changed to best-of-three affairs.

The 1938-39 season saw the reduction of teams from 10 to 7, and with it an end to the Canadian and American divisions. The Stanley Cup playoffs saw the first and second place teams play against each other in a best-of-seven series for one berth in the Stanley Cup Finals, while the third to sixth place teams battled in a series of best-of-three matches for the other berth (with the third place team battling the fourth place team, and the fifth place team against the sixth place team). The playoff format introduced in the 1938-39 season had a best-of-seven Stanley Cup Final, which still stands today.

The 1942-43 season saw the removal of the New York Americans, and thus the six remaining teams formed the Original Six. During this era, the playoff format went unchanged, with the first and third place teams battling in one best-of-seven semifinal, while the second and fourth place teams battled in the other best-of-seven semifinal. During this time, Detroit Red Wings fans often threw an octopus onto the ice as a good luck charm, as eight wins were required to win the Stanley Cup.

The Modern Era expansion saw the number of teams double from six to twelve in the 1967-68 season, and with it the creation of the Western and Eastern Conferences. The playoff format remained largely the same, with all series remaining best-of-seven, and the Western and Eastern Conference champions battling for the Stanley Cup. The 1970-71 season, because of fan demand, brought forth the first interconference playoff matchup outside of the Stanley Cup Final since the pre-war expansion, which had the winner of the 2 vs 4 matchup in one conference take on the winner of the 1 vs 3 matchup in the other conference for a berth in the Stanley Cup Finals. The following year had one minor change to its playoff format: a stronger team would face a weaker opponent. Thus, instead of a 1 vs 3 and 2 vs 4 matchup in the first round, the first round had a 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3 matchup. This practice of having stronger teams facing weaker opposition would continue to the present day.

The 1974-75 seasons saw another change to its playoff system to accommodate the league of now 18 teams, 12 of which qualified for postseason berth. The top team from each conference would earn byes to the Stanley Cup quarterfinals, while the second and third place teams from each division started their playoff run from a preliminary round. In each round of the playoffs, the teams remaining were seeded regardless of divisional or conference alignment, with the preliminary-round series being a best-of-three affair while the remainder of the series remained best-of-seven. The 1977-78 season had one minor change in its playoff format: although the second place finishers from each division would qualify for the preliminary round, the four playoff spots reserved for the third-place teams were replaced by four wild-card spots - spots for the four teams with the highest regular-season point total but which did not finish first or second in their divisions.

With the absorption of four teams from the World Hockey Association in the 1979-1980 season, a new playoff system was introduced where 16 of the league's 21 teams would qualify for postseason play. The four division winners would qualify for the playoffs while twelve wildcard positions rounded out the sixteen teams. At the beginning of each round the teams were seeded based on their regular season point totals, with the preliminary round being a best-of-five series while all other playoff series were best-of-seven.

The 1981-1982 season brought forth the return of divisional matchups, with the top four teams from each division qualifying for the postseason play. Division champions would be determined, followed by the Conference champions, who would meet in the Stanley Cup finals. The division semifinals was a best-of-five affair until the 1986-87 season, when it became a best-of-seven series, while all other series remained best-of seven.

The 1993-94 season brought forth the change in the playoff format that would result in the format being used today. The division winners would occupy top three seeds while five wildcard berths completed the conference playoff draws, with all series being best-of-seven. One quirk that was abolished with division realignment in the 1998-99 season was that the higher-ranked teams in Western Conference interdivisional matchups had the option of having home ice rotate on a 2-2-1-1-1 basis or a 2-3-2 basis, and if the latter was chosen having the bulk of their games at home or on the road. The 1998-99 season also brought forth a re-seeding of conference playoff matchups after the first round, as well as a third division in each conference.

Playoffs in Association football

As a rule, international Association football has only had championship playoffs when a league is divided into several equal divisions/conferences/groups (MLS, Primera División de México) and/or when the season is split into two periods (as in many leagues in Latin America). In leagues with a single table done only once a year, as in most of Europe, playoff systems are used as outlined in the examples below.

English League promotion play-offs

The championship of every division in English football is determined solely by the standings in the league. A championship play-off would only be held if two teams were tied for points, goal difference and goals scored; however, this has never happened.

In the earliest years of the Second Division, "test matches" decided promotion and relegation between the top teams of the Second Division and the bottom teams in the First Division. This system was abandoned by the beginning of the 20th century.

The use of play-offs to decide promotion issues returned to the League in 1986 with the desire to reduce the number of mid-table clubs with nothing to play for at the end of the season. The Nationwide Conference introduced play-offs in 2002 after the Football League agreed to a two-club exchange with the Conference.

The top two teams in the Football League Championship and in Football League One are automatically promoted to the division above and thus do not compete in the play-offs. The top three teams in Football League Two and the champion of Conference National are also automatically promoted. In each of these divisions the four clubs finishing below the automatic promotion places compete in two-legged semi-finals with the higher-placed club enjoying home advantage in the second leg. The away goals rule does not apply for the semi-finals, which has led to some games swinging the way of a team that otherwise would have been beaten by the rule. The Football League play-off finals were originally played in two legs, at both teams' home grounds, but were later changed to one-off affairs, which are played at the Wembley Stadium in London. The Conference play-off final is also played at Wembley.

In 2003 Gillingham F.C. proposed replacing the current play-off system with one involving six clubs from each division and replacing the two-legged ties with one-off matches. If adopted, the two higher-placed clubs in the play-offs would have enjoyed first-round byes and home advantage in the semi-finals. It was a controversial proposal — some people did not believe a club finishing eighth in the League could compete in the Premiership while others found the system too American for their liking. Although League chairmen initially voted in favour of the proposal, it was blocked by The FA and soon abandoned.

Italian Serie B

In 2004-05, Italy's professional league introduced a promotion playoff to its second tier of football, Serie B. It operates almost identically to the system currently used in England. The top two clubs in Serie B earn automatic promotion to Serie A with the next four clubs entering a playoff to determine who wins the third promotion place, as long as fewer than 10 points separate the third and fourth-placed teams (which often occurs).

Comparison between Italian and English systems

  • Like the English playoffs, the Italian playoffs employ two-legged semi-finals, with the higher finisher in the league table earning home advantage in the second leg. If the teams are level on aggregate after full time of the second leg, away goals are not used, but extra time is used. If the tie is still level after extra time, the team that finished higher in the league qualifies.
  • Unlike England, the Italian playoff final is two-legged, again with the higher finisher earning home advantage in the second leg. In case the tie is level after extra time of the second leg, the higher classified team qualifies.

Dutch league

In The Netherlands, a playoff was introduced in season 2005-2006. It is used to determine which teams from the Eredivisie qualify for European football. The playoff system has been criticized by clubs, players and fans as the number of matches will increase. Under the original playoff format, it was possible, though thoroughly unlikely, that the runner-up would not qualify for Europe; the following year, the format was changed so that the second-place team was assured of no worse than a UEFA Cup berth. For the 2008-2009 season, the format has changed yet again. The number one goes to the Champions League; the number two goes to the second qualification round of the CL; the number three goes to the fourth (and last) qualification round of the UEFA Cup (UC) and the number four goes to the third qualification round of the UC. The only play-off will be for the numbers five through eight. The winner of that play-off receives a ticket for the second qualification round of the UC.

Playoffs are also used for relegation to the Eerste Divisie, the Dutch second football league.

Belgian league

In the Belgian Jupiler League, the 17th team (out of 18) in the final standings has to join a playoff pool with three teams from the Belgian Second Division after each season, to determine which of these teams gets to play in the Jupiler League the oncoming season. Originally, these playoffs were introduced in 1974 and were part of the Belgian Second Division, to determine which team was promoted to the highest level together with the division champions. From the 2005-06 season on, only one team was relegated directly from the Jupiler League, with the 17th team taking part in the playoff. As a result, this playoff is still called the Belgian Second Division Final Round, although one team from the Jupiler League now takes part each year.

Scottish league

The Scottish Premier League experimented briefly with playoffs in the mid-1990s, with only one team - Dundee United - achieving promotion through it (Partick Thistle were relegated at their expense). Currently, the bottom team is relegated to the First Division of the Scottish Football League, and the top team from there is promoted. In the First/Second and Second/Third Division, while the champions are automatically promoted and the bottom team relegated, there are playoffs of the second-bottom teams against the second, third and fourth placed teams from the league below. Home and away ties decide semi-finals and a final, and the overall winner plays in the higher league the following season, with the loser in the lower league.

Mexican league

Mexico's top flight league, the Primera División de México, divides its 18 teams into three groups of six. In each of two annual tournaments, every team plays every other team in the league once (17 games), after which the top two teams in each group advance to the Liguilla and the next four best teams overall advance to the Repechaje. The four Repechaje teams play a single home-and-away round, with the best team (by points) facing the worst team and the second-best facing the second-worst. The winners of these two series advance to the Liguilla.

In the Liguilla, all rounds are home-and-away. Teams are drawn so the best team plays the worst, the second-best plays the second-worst, and so on. After one round, the teams are redrawn so the best remaining team again plays the worst remaining one and the second-best faces the second-worst in the semi-finals. The two winners of this round play each other for the championship.

There is no playoff between the Apertura and Clausura winner. As a result, the league crowns two champions each year. After each Clausura, the team with the lowest points-per-game total for the previous six tournaments (three years, counting only Primera División games) is relegated to Primera División A to be replaced by that league's champion (if eligible).

Major League Soccer

In Major League Soccer in the U.S., at the end of the regular season, the top four teams in each Conference advance to the Conference Semifinals, the first round of the postseason knockout tournament. The winner of each conference will play for the MLS Cup, the league championship.

Conference Semifinal series are conducted under a home-and-away, aggregate-goal format, with single-game Conference Championships determining the MLS Cup Finalists. For each Conference, the 1st seed plays the 4th seed, and the 2nd seed faces the 3rd seed in the Conference Semifinal series, with the lower seeded team hosting the first game.

The team that scores the most goals in the home-and-away series advances to the single elimination Conference Championship. If the teams are tied after 180 minutes in the Conference Semifinal series, a 30-minute extra time period (divided into two 15-minute periods) would be played followed by a penalty-kick shootout, if necessary. The team with the higher seed between the two Conference finalists will host the Conference Championship game.

In the case of ties after regulation in the Eastern and Western Conference Championship games and MLS Cup, 30 minutes of extra time (divided into two 15-minute periods) would be played followed by a penalty-kick shootout, if necessary, to determine the winners.

International playoffs

In international football, playoffs were a feature of the 1954 and 1958 FIFA World Cup final tournaments. They are still a feature of the qualification tournaments for the FIFA World Cup and the European Football Championship.

In the qualification playoffs for the 2006 FIFA World Cup, for example:

Knockout competitions

In addition to their league competitions, most European footballing nations also have knockout cup competitions - English football, for example, has the FA Cup and the League Cup. These competitions are open to many teams—92 clubs compete for the League Cup, and hundreds compete for the FA Cup. These competitions run concurrently with the "regular season" league competitions and are not regarded as playoffs.

Playoffs in Australian rules football and Australian rugby league

Playoffs are used in both the Australian Football League (AFL) and the National Rugby League (NRL), where they are known as finals (in rugby league, also as semi finals or semis) - although unlike North American leagues, participating teams only come from within a single division, and also consist of single matches rather than series. The term playoff was used in the NSWRL competition to describe sudden death matches used as tie breakers for finals qualification.

In both leagues, the top eight teams at the end of the regular season qualify for the finals. Although the systems used in both leagues are slightly different, both involve two teams being eliminated in each round until only two teams remain (the participants in the Grand Final), and both are structured so that higher-ranked teams are given a more advantageous draw.

The system used by the AFL works as follows:

Week One

  • First-ranked team vs fourth-ranked team (1st Qualifying Final)
  • Second-ranked team vs third-ranked team (2nd Qualifying Final)
  • Fifth-ranked team vs eighth-ranked team (1st Elimination Final)
  • Sixth-ranked team vs seventh-ranked team (2nd Elimination Final)

The winners of the qualifying finals advance directly to week three, while the losers of the elimination finals are eliminated. The remaining four teams continue on to week two.

Week Two

  • Loser of 2nd qualifying final vs winner of 2nd elimination final (1st Semi-Final)
  • Loser of 1st qualifying final vs winner of 1st elimination final (2nd Semi-Final)

The two winners advance to week three while the losers are eliminated.

Week Three

  • Winner of 1st qualifying final vs winner of 1st semi-final (1st Preliminary Final)
  • Winner of 2nd qualifying final vs winner of 2nd semi-final (2nd Preliminary Final)

The two winners advance to the Grand Final, held in week four at the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

The McIntyre Final Eight System, used by the NRL but previously used by the AFL, works as follows:

Week One

  • First-ranked team vs eighth-ranked team (4th Qualifying Final)
  • Second-ranked team vs seventh-ranked team (3rd Qualifying Final)
  • Third-ranked team vs sixth-ranked team (2nd Qualifying Final)
  • Fourth-ranked team vs fifth-ranked team (1st Qualifying Final)

After this round, the four winners are ranked in order of their positions at the end of the regular season, as are the four losers. The two highest ranked winners advance directly to week three, while the two lowest ranked losers are eliminated. The remaining four teams continue on to week two.

Week Two

  • Third highest-ranked winner vs highest-ranked loser (1st Semi Final)
  • Fourth highest-ranked winner vs second highest-ranked loser (2nd Semi Final)

The two winners advance to week three while the losers are eliminated.

Week Three

  • Highest-ranked winner from Week One vs winner of 1st semi-final (1st Preliminary Final)
  • Second highest-ranked winner from Week One vs winner of 2nd semi-final (2nd Preliminary Final)

The two winners advance to the Grand Final, held in week four at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.

Playoffs in English rugby

In the Guinness Premiership the top four qualify for the playoffs, where they are not referred to by that name. Here, the team who finished first after the league stage plays the team who finished fourth, while the team who finished second plays the team who finished third in the Semi-Finals with the higher-ranked team having homefield advantage. The winners of these semi-finals qualify for the Premiership Final at Twickenham, where the winner will be champions of the league.

The system used in the rugby league Super League is more complex. Introduced in 1998 it originally featured the top five highest-ranked teams after the 28 regular league rounds but since 2000 the play-offs added an extra spot to allow the top six to qualify. The current format works like this:

Week One

  • Elimination Semi-final A: 3rd vs 6th
  • Elimination Semi-final B: 4th vs 5th

Week Two

  • Elimination Final: Winners of Elimination Semi-final A vs Winners of Elimination Semi-final B
  • Qualification Match: 1st vs 2nd

Week Three

  • Final Qualifier: Winners of Elimination Final vs Losers of Qualification Match

Week Four

  • Grand Final: Winners of Qualification Match vs Winners of Final Qualifier at Old Trafford

This format is also used by the Rugby League National Leagues to determine which teams gets promoted.

Playoffs in French rugby

The highest level of French rugby union, the Top 14, uses a playoff system identical to that used in the Guinness Premiership, with the top four teams after the double round-robin season qualifying. While the teams are seeded in the same manner as in the English playoffs, the semifinals in France are held at neutral sites. The winners of these semifinals qualify for the final at Stade de France, where the winner will be champions of the league and receive the Bouclier de Brennus.

The second level, Rugby Pro D2, uses a four-team playoff similar to that used in English football, but consisting of one-off knockout matches instead of two-legged ties, to determine the second of two teams promoted to the next season's Top 14 (the champions earn automatic promotion). The promotion semifinals are held at the home fields of the second- and third-place teams, and the promotion final is held at a neutral site.

Playoffs in New Zealand rugby

Both domestic competitions in New Zealand rugby — the fully professional Air New Zealand Cup and the nominally amateur Heartland Championship — use a playoff system to determine their champions, although the term "playoff" is also not used in New Zealand.

Air New Zealand Cup

In the 2006 Air New Zealand Cup, the first season of the revamped domestic structure in that country, the top six teams after Round One of the competition automatically qualified for the playoffs, officially known as Round Three. Their relative seeding was determined by their standings at the end of the Top Six phase of Round Two. The teams that finished below the top six entered repechage pools in Round Two, with the winner of each pool taking up one of the final two playoff slots. The seventh seed was the repechage winner with the better record, and the eighth seed was the other repechage winner.

From 2007 onward, the former Rounds One and Two were collapsed into a single pool phase of play in which all teams participate, with the top eight teams advancing to the playoffs.

The playoffs in each season format have consisted of a single-elimination tournament. The teams are bracketed in the normal fashion (1 vs 8, 2 vs 7, 3 vs 6, 4 vs 5), with the higher seed receiving home-field advantage. After the quarterfinals, the playoff is rebracketed, with the highest surviving seed hosting the lowest surviving seed and the second-highest surviving seed hosting the third surviving seed. The winners of these semifinals qualify for the Air New Zealand Cup Final, held at the home ground of the higher surviving seed.

Heartland Championship

In this competition, teams play for two distinct trophies — the more prestigious Meads Cup and the Lochore Cup. The 12 Heartland Championship teams are divided into two pools for round-robin play in Round One, with the top three in each pool advancing to the Meads Cup and the bottom three dropping to the Lochore Cup.

Round Two in both the Meads and Lochore Cups is an abbreviated round-robin tournament, with each team playing only the teams it did not play in Round One. The top four teams in the Meads Cup pool at the end of Round Two advance to the Meads Cup semifinals; the same applies for the Lochore Cup contestants.

The semifinals of both cups are seeded 1 vs 4 and 2 vs 3, with the higher seeds earning home field advantage. The semifinal winners advance to their respective cup final, hosted by the higher surviving seed.

Playoffs in the Canadian Football League

The playoffs begin in November. After the regular season, the top team from each division has an automatic home game berth in the Division Final, and a bye week during the Division Semifinal. The second-place team from each division hosts the third-place team in the Division Semifinal, unless the fourth-place team from the opposite division finishes with a better record. This "crossover rule" does not come into play if the teams have identical records—there are no tiebreakers. While the format means that it is possible for two teams in the same division to play for the Grey Cup, no crossover team has ever won even the divisional semifinal game. The winners of each Division's Semifinal game then travel to play the first place teams in the Division Finals. Since 2005, the Division Semifinals and Division Finals have been sponsored by Scotiabank and are branded as the "Scotiabank East Championship" and "Scotiabank West Championship". The two division champions then face each other in the Grey Cup game, which is held on the third or fourth Sunday of November.

The Edmonton Eskimos are notable for qualifying for the CFL playoffs every year from 1972 to 2005, a record in North American pro sports.

Playoffs in Japan's Baseball Leagues

Before the playoff system is placed in both professional leagues, the Pacific League in Nippon Professional Baseball(NPB) had applied a playoff system for twice. The first is between 1973-1982, which they applied a split-season and have an 5-game playoff between the winning teams of both halves of season (unless a team won both of the half so that they need not to play such games). And the second time was between 2004-2006, which the top three team will play a two-staged stepladder knockout (3 games in first stage and 5 games in second stage) the decide the League Champion (and the team playing in Japan Series). After applied with such system, the Seibu Lions(Now Saitama Seibu Lions), Chiba Lotte Marines and Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters, which claimed the Pacific League Champion under such system, were all able to clinch the following Japan Series in that season. The success of such playoff system made Central League, which never used playoff system to decide League Champion shows interset to playoff system. In 2007, a new playoff system, named "Climax Series", is introduced to both professional leagues in NPB to decide the team playing in Japan Series. The Climax Series basically applied the rule of the playoff system in Pacific League. But unlike the previous playoff system, Climax Series does not affact teams' standing nor indivial records in regular season which the previous playoff system in Pacific League did, this means the winner of Japan Series may not be the winner of the League. The Chunichi Dragons takes the advantage of such system in the first Climax Series-implemented season, finishing second in regular season, but swept Hanshin Tigers and League Champion Yomiuri Giants in Central League Climax Series, and beat the Champion of Pacific League Climax Series Hokkaido Nippon Ham Fighters to claim their first Japan Series in 52 years.

In 2008, the format of Climax Series will have a slight change, which the second stage will be played for 6-games, which the League Champion will have an extra 1-game advantage.

Trivia

  • The relegation playoffs are called playouts in Italy. For example, here is an extract from the official rules for television coverage of the Italian volley league, from the official site

d) al reciproco scambio di radiocronache e telecronache (cassette incluse) per l'intera durata del Campionato, della Coppa Italia e dei relativi Play-Out e Play-Off (anche dove non sia prevista gara di ritorno) e più precisamente:

which translates as follows:

(the broadcaster provides) reciprocal exchange of sportcastings (including cassettes) for the entire championship, for the Italian cup and their Play-Out and Play-Offs (even if a return match is not scheduled) and more precisely:...

See also

Notes and references

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