NLL playoff format should reward top teams

Marty O'Neill
Marty O'Neill

Well, the ending to this National Lacrosse League season will be fitting in the sense that this was a season of inconsistencies for every team at some point in time. The argument goes down to the playoff system and what it DOESN’T do to protect a 12-4 Calgary Roughneck team or a division leader who has set themselves apart of the group over 16 games and then is forced to play at equal currency in a 1-game, do-or-die playoff. Sure, there is home advantage but that provides a little more pressure on the teams that have battled and established hierarchy in a one game take all. My thought for the expanded playoff we all want to see?

›› First-place in respective divisions gets a bye in Round 1 but gets paid for one game.

›› No. 2 vs. No. 3 seeds play a single knock-out elimination game to gain the right to challenge for the division.

››  The division final is then set at a best-of-three over two weekends to help with scheduling.

Up for debate would be a cost-saving notion. Home team plays 2 games back-to-back at home to save flight costs. It also makes up for the home game that finishing first didn’t provide in this set up compared to our current playoff format. It gives the division winner two weeks to sell their home games and really take advantage of having played a winning season.

Problems with this idea are:
›› Arena availability (NHL, NBA playoffs and concerts)
›› Home team/division winner is a poor draw, which means the league loses money BUT if it’s Colorado or Buffalo or Calgary, then it’s a big help possibly. No different than now, though. Just an extra date.
›› Back-to-back home games are a tough sell. Still, it is playoffs.

The upside is that it safeguards against some big issues like a one-week turnaround for selling a playoff game for divisional winners and of course a single knock out format for the team that wins the division. A 3-game series also provides some heightened drama and a chance for the challenging team to have 3 weeks to alert their fan base of a possible division-deciding game.

Absorbing the costs of 2 games into 1 flight for concerned teams helps finances for everyone involved. Arena dates for Friday nights and Sunday afternoons are usually in play and easily available if other pro teams are eliminated from play. This year NHL teams in Edmonton, Calgary, Minnesota, Buffalo, Toronto, and Colorado all missed the playoffs. That may help TV ratings in lacrosse-hockey-basketball markets and it provides for an extra TV date.

Winners go on to a single elimination championship.

I propose this idea because it does 2 things. It puts value on the NLL regular season where it should be. Secondly, it is a weighted playoff system favoring our best teams, not our weakest.

Applied to this year we would not have Edmonton in the final game.

Minnesota would have traveled to Colorado to play and Rochester would have hosted Philadelphia before deciding on divisional matchups. Taking those results forward the proposed scenario would look like this:

Our defending champs from Toronto would have had a mulligan with the upstart Knighthawks at home and the Swarm would have had to grind out 2 road wins versus the Roughnecks and a rested Curtis Dickson to earn their home playoff date.

I’ll have all of you readers know that this is, and has been for some time, a hot topic with the NLL governors during the offseason. They run a business and a good business model doesn’t allow for big losses, if preventable. Home playoffs dates are tough to sell. Even Colorado and Buffalo see a drop in their attendance with a week to sell a game. Russ Cline and Chris Fritz held home playoff games based on attendance back when I played. They ran a profitable business. This leads to the credibility of the league. I get that.

So again go back to my proposed model. I think it takes the most important aspects into account without adding a ton of extra cost.

Food for thought.

O'Neill is a three-time Mann Cup winner and former general manager of the Philadelphia Wings (2001-2004) and Minnesota Swarm (2004-2010), where he was twice named NLL GM of the Year (2007, 2008).

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