WNBA introduces new playoff format abolishing single-elimination games, top-seeded byes

·4 min read

The WNBA Board of Governors voted to change its playoff format to eliminate single-elimination games and top-seeded byes beginning with the 2022 postseason, the league announced Thursday. 

The new format will be three rounds of series play that uses a best-of-3-5-5 format. 

The previous format, which was put in place in 2016, faced criticism from fans and players. The overall format was critiqued as a poor way to help market the league since early matchups were one-and-done and the single-elimination was viewed as unfair to the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds.

WNBA playoff format features best-of series

The league will still bring the top eight seeds into the playoffs and seed them on their overall record. But the new format cuts the rounds from four to three while simultaneously expanding to have potentially eight additional games.

The biggest changes are no single-elimination, no byes and no reseeding done between rounds. The bracket will stand as it is no matter which seed comes out of the first-round matchups. 

The first round is a best-of-three series with the No. 1 versus No. 8 seed and No. 4 vs. No. 5. The higher seeds will host the first two games and the lower seed will host Game 3, if necessary. The winners of those will meet in a best-of-five semifinals series. 

The No. 3 will play the No. 6 and the No. 2 versus the No. 7. Those winners will meet in the semifinals. The finals are best-of-five. All will remain a 2-2-1 format with the higher seed hosting the first two games, followed by the lower seed, and back to the higher seed, if necessary. 

Changes have been on the docket 

The WNBA playoff format has been a hot topic, particularly after the No. 3 and No. 4 seeds were eliminated within one game this year. 

“We have been evaluating different playoff formats over the past 12 months, and the new playoff format being announced today will enable fans to engage with all of the league’s best teams and top stars right from the start of the postseason with all eight championship contenders immediately involved in exciting, first-round action,” said WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert said in a release. “Following significant discussions with our Competition Committee and a Playoff subcommittee we formed last year, it was clear that while the prior format’s single-elimination games created a win-and-advance level of excitement to the start of the postseason, the new best-of-three series format will provide added opportunities to create and showcase rivalries with all playoff-eligible teams participating.”

It was a year of parity and growth, but the previous playoff format arguably handcuffed the potential growth. Players and fans noted that the playoff format didn't allow the league to market players well enough. Many teams and their star players, such as the Dallas Wings and Arike Ogunbowale, weren't around long enough to build storytelling around. And rivalries, such as what we saw with the Chicago Sky and Phoenix Mercury, weren't able to properly fester and build into bigger storylines. 

The format was compared to the excitement of March Madness, but players argued it wasn't fair to professional athletes to set it up that way. The Hamby Heave of 2019 showed how precarious a single-elimination could be and was likely one of the mounting factors to the change. 

WNBA previous playoff format

Chicago Sky players hold celebrate after winning the WNBA championship on Oct. 17, 2021, at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)
Chicago Sky players hold celebrate after winning the WNBA championship on Oct. 17, 2021, at Wintrust Arena in Chicago. (Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

The WNBA introduced a new playoff format in 2016 that eliminated the importance of conference play. The eight best teams as determined by overall record reached the playoffs, which used a 1-1-5-5 format. 

The first two rounds were single-elimination, so the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds could be bounced in one game. That's exactly what happened to both this year as the No. 3 Minnesota Lynx and No. 4 Seattle Storm both lost.

The No. 1 and No. 2 seeds had double-byes into the semifinals and often went 10 days between the end of the regular season and postseason. Though that wasn't the only thing at play this past playoffs, it could be viewed as a contributor for both the No. 1 Connecticut Sun, who finished the regular season on a 14-game win streak, and No. 2 Las Vegas Aces. 

The Sky, seeded sixth in the playoff standings, became the first team not seeded No. 1 or No. 2 to win the WNBA championship. They were also the first non-No. 1 to reach the final series. The Mercury joined them days later as the No. 5 seed. 

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