What’s the matter with… playoff re-seeding?

The NHL and NFL re-seed teams as they move through the playoffs.

The NBA and NCAA basketball do not, opting for a bracket system.

MLB, because of its limited playoff pool, don’t really face the issue (though they certainly have their own issues with seeding).

NCAA football… well, NCAA football is still using the bowl system.  Let’s just pretend that silliness doesn’t exist.

Which approach is right?

First, let’s make sure we all know what we’re talking about here.  Leagues that re-seed guarantee that the highest ranked team plays the lowest ranked team, the second-highest ranked team plays the second-lowest ranked team, and on and on through all rounds of the playoffs.  So, in the NFL, the #3 seeded team plays the #6 seeded team in the opening round.  If the #6 seed wins, they play the #1 seed in the following round.  If the #3 seed wins, they’ll play the #2 seed while the #1 seed plays the winner of the #4/#5 matchup.  Leagues that use a bracket system have set brackets that are static.  Should an upset occur, match-ups don’t change.  So, in the NBA this year, we see the #2 and #3 seeds face off in the second round while the #4 and #8 teams play each other.

As I see it, here are the pros and cons of each system:

Re-seeding Pros/ Bracket Cons:

  • The best teams are assured of an easier route, something they theoretically earned as a result of their regular season performance.  In a bracket, a worse team might have an easier route to advancing than a better team.
  • You are less likely to see “flukey” results, as weaker teams will have to beat the best remaining competition at every turn in order to proceed.
  • It seems more “fair”.  Why should the Heat, the #2 seed, have a tougher second-round opponent (the third-seeded Pacers) than the #4 Celtics (playing the eight-seeded Sixers)?

Bracket Pros/ Re-seeding Cons

– There are a wide variety of logistical and scheduling issues, as matchups often can’t be set until all series are completed.  This means travel schedule and hotel reservations can become problematic.  This isn’t really an issue for fans, but can prove a burden for the league and theoretically could impact the scheduling of games, which does impact fans.

  • Fewer upsets.  Fans love upsets (or at least claim too… ratings numbers seem to indicate otherwise).  You are less likely to see Cinderella teams make deep runs in the NCAA tournament if they keep having to play the best competition.  Of course, the LA Kings are disproving this right now, making a run to the Stanley Cup finals as a #8 seed, but hockey lends itself to such things.
  • March Madness brackets are made possible only using the bracket system.  Goodbye pools if a re-seeding system is employed.

So which system is better?  I personally prefer re-seeding.  It just seems silly to me that many of the supposed benefits of achieving a higher seed disappear once the first round is over.  And as much as I enjoy individual game upsets, I prefer to see the best of the best play each other for the title.  An NBA finals matchup between the Heat and the Thunder would be more exciting and compelling to watch than a Cinderella matchup between the Sixers and Jazz would have been.  What do you think?  Are there pros and cons to either system I’m ignoring?  Is there something about specific sports that lend themselves better to one approach than another?  Is there a third alternative out there (perhaps in soccer) or one someone is willing to propose?

EDITED to fix some formatting issues.  No content changes.


One man. Two boys. Twelve kids.


  1. I think that the NCAA basketball tournament is fine the way it is. Part of the joy is watching things go out of kilter, and anything that messes with the pools should be resisted. It’s tradition.

    I’m less attached to it in the NBA.

    • This!

      Also, #2 sounds like a little thing (for college), but it’s not. I truly believe it increases the number of people paying attention to the tourney by double. Maybe more. Otherwise… just follow your own team until you get to the Final Four and *then* pay attention.

      • I think you’re both right. Generally, I’m not a fan of “tradition for tradition’s sake”, but there is something truly special about March Madness brackets. If I’m ever sports czar, I’d probably move to have all leagues BUT the NCAA re-seed. The NCAA tournament is flawed in so many ways from a “competitive” stand point, but amazing in so many ways from an entertainment standpoint and I think it has come to represent something unique in American sports culture and should probably be left alone (though I’d go back to 64 teams and eliminate the silliness of the “opening round”).

  2. The L.A. Kings are demonstrating the fact that re-seeding does not reduce the competitiveness of a playoff schedule. The Kings defeated the #1 seed, #2 seed, and the #3 seed, in order, losing only two of their combined 14 playoff games for the Western conference. At this point I’d take the #6 seeded New Jersey Devils over the top-seeded Rangers to be their competition.

    Re-seeding has not prevented competitiveness in NFL playoffs, either. The Giants upset the Packers in last year’s playoffs, for instance. But football, like hockey, is a volatile sport with less predictable single-game outcomes than, say, baseball.

    I don’t see any problem with re-seedings.

    • Burt-

      I agree. I didn’t articulate it in the post, but I think re-seeding makes it *more* legitimate if and when an underdog makes it far. If the Kings win the Cup, they’ll have done so by beating elite competition at almost every step of the way. With a bracket system, they could have ended up with an easier route to the cup than a much higher seeded team, which would have made their accomplishment more open to question.

      “But football, like hockey, is a volatile sport with less predictable single-game outcomes than, say, baseball.”
      I find this statement curious. I think baseball tends to have the LEAST predictable single-game outcomes of all the sports. I doubt any individual baseball team ever has more than a 60% chance of winning an individual game. I’d venture to guess it is much higher for football. Hockey is an interesting sport because one player (the goalie) can so profoundly change a game in either direction. Baseball’s advantage over football is that they don’t play just one game in the playoffs (though the new double wildcard format will have this feature), so the sample size is larger and, theoretically, less prone to random fluctuations. I’m curious to hear why you think otherwise, as I know there is a lot of debate on this issue.

      • Now that I think about it, I’d have to concede that this last comment was hastily composed and ill-thought-through. Football — at least at the NFL and elite NCAA-I levels — is almost certainly less volatile than baseball at the single-game level. I suspect that there are statistics somewhere showing favorites that win versus underdogs as determined by, for instance, Vegas spreads. That would give us some idea of real single-game volatility.

        • I might write a post on this, as I think fitting this into a broader dissection of playoff procedures will give us an idea of league does the “best” job at crowning a champion. I alluded to it in my post on the NBA draft, with a hunch being that it is indeed the NBA, but more analysis is required.

  3. I know nothing about sports, and when I say nothing, I mean NOTHING! But I read through this entire post and the comments because I like MD and was hoping that it would make sense eventually (no such luck). It is like a foreign language I have never heard before. In exchange for the torture I subjected myself to, I now feel entitled to leave a comment. So there! ;p

    • Hi Mary!

      Sorry this post didn’t resonate with you. I will say that this is probably the most “sports-heavy” of the sports-themed posts I’ve done here, so please don’t tune them all out. Generally speaking, I try

      • ARGH!
        Generally speaking, I try to connect issues in sports to broader topics to make them more accessible, but sometimes they will just be chalk talk. Please check back! Would love to have you participate.

  4. it’s interesting that each of the four examples you picked represent each of the four quadrants possible in a reseeding vs brackets, series vs one & done matrix. Wonder if there is any value of making the former a dependent variable of the latter.

    In any league with true competitive balance, there’s going to be a very narrow margin between ‘the best’ and the ‘not quite best’, and consequently playoffs are more about who is on a hot streak vs who is really ‘the best’. But then again, part of what makes ‘the best’ the best in any human endeavor is knowing how to have – and how to play – a hot hand when it counts.

    • I am never going to believe that the 2006 Cardinals (83-78, Pythagorean 82-79, +19 runs) were anything close to the best team in MLB that year.

      • The Cardinals shouldn’t even have been in the playoffs that year! Realistically, baseball should play a 15-17 game series, but that would get boring fast. And they shouldn’t take so many goddamn days off such that teams completely refigure their rosters and pitching staffs. The game should not look entirely different in the post-season than the regular season. That is strignant.

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