The Great Bracket Racket (and That Time I Was Wrong)

So I’ve been trying to figure out how to start this post for weeks now, and finally I was inspired by Tiny Coach’s new-found love of making up jokes. (NB: If those jokes ever expand to have actual punchlines, I will share them with you.) So here is the one I made up this morning:

Knock knock.
Who’s there?
This bracket.
This bracket who?
This bracket’s fucking broken and I hate it.

Ha ha! See, ’cause maybe if I pretend this whole thing is funny instead of an insulting abomination of a playoff system, I won’t be so angry all the time. (Ha ha! That part actually IS funny.)

Where to begin? Let’s start with talking about two universal premises of playoff structures:

  1. Playing better in the regular season should lead to having a better position in the playoffs.
  2. In early rounds, stronger teams should play weaker teams while teams in the middle play each other.

The WFA bracket this year flagrantly disregards both of those premises. There are numerous places throughout the bracket where it would be more advantageous to be a lower-ranked team than a higher-ranked one. And these are not some weird fluke things that no one could have seen coming – they were visible in the bracket weeks before the end of the season, before we even knew which teams would land where. (Sometimes I really wonder if the WFA playoff structure isn’t created in reverse, with the league knowing what they want the results to be and trying to engineer the bracket backwards to produce that.) Here are just some of the examples:

At the end of the regular season, the top three teams in the Pacific Region were as follows:

San Diego Surge (Massey Rank #3)
Seattle Majestics (Massey Rank #5)
Cen Cal War Angels (Massey Rank #7)

…so they became Pac Winners 1, 2 and 3, respectively. San Diego and Seattle were awarded a bye week while Cen Cal played in the first round against the lowest-ranked wildcard in the region. Seems ok, yeah? But here’s the thing: when using Massey ratings to determine home field, the WFA decided to use updated rankings each week, inclusive of playoff games, instead of using a “snapshot” of the ratings at the end of the regular season.

So in Round 1, Central Cal had a 44-0 victory while Seattle sat around with no game to play. When the updated ratings came out, Central Cal had jumped to #6 and Seattle had fallen to #9 – even though they literally had no opportunity to stop that from happening. Game on in Central Cal. It’s not rocket science to know that a bye week is supposed to be a GOOD thing, not a thing that loses you home field in the playoffs.

Then this had a ripple effect: San Diego played at home in Round 2 while Seattle traveled (when they shouldn’t have had to). So by the rules of the WFA, in the next round, San Diego – with a numerical Massey rating of three times what Seattle’s was – would travel all the way the hell up the coast to Washington State. That’s just not right to ask of the #1 team in the whole American Conference.

Speaking of which, that rule only applies in the American Conference; if it applied to the National Conference as well, Chicago would be playing in Miami tonight. (No shit!) As it is, Miami is traveling a further distance than Seattle was granted a reprieve from. (The travel rule, I think, is a prime example of “right problem, wrong solution. ” More on that some other time, though.)

What else? The Northeast Wildcard scene was just dumb. Universal Playoff Premise #2 above states that the strongest teams should play the weakest ones early in the playoffs; this rewards a team for doing better in the regular season and helps ensure that teams progressing to the next round are actually the ones who should be there. But did this happen in the Northeast? Why no, no it did not. Before a single game was played in 2014, it would have been perfectly obvious to anyone who wanted to see it that the winner of the Mideast Division (Toledo, Derby City or Cincinnati) would not be as strong as the Northeast wildcard teams. There was just no chance. And here’s how it ended up:

NE Wildcard 1: Cleveland Fusion (MR #6)
NE Wildcard 2: Indy Crash (MR #8)
NE Wildcard 3: Columbus Comets (MR #10)
NE Div Winner 4: Toledo Reign (MR #23)

By all rights, Cleveland should have played Toledo and Indy should have played Columbus. But instead, the bracket had Indy travel to Cleveland (#8 vs #6) while Toledo went to Columbus (#23 vs #10). Dumb.

But really, the Supreme Bullshit of the 2014 WFA playoff bracket is the placement of the Northeast Winners.

The WFA decreed that Northeast Winners 1, 3 and 4 would play in the Northeast region in the playoffs while, inexplicably, Northeast Winner 2 would play teams from the Southeast region.

What the fuck.

So you’re telling me that because Boston kicked ass all season, they get to have a schedule that looks like this (starting with the last week of the regular season):

@ DC Divas
vs Cleveland Fusion
vs DC Divas
vs Chicago Force
Championship

…while, if they had been ranked #2 instead of #1, they would have done this?

@ DC Divas
vs one of the two lowest ranked teams in the entire conference (Wildcard 11/12)
vs Tampa Bay/ATL/Miami
vs Chicago Force
Championship

seed-scale

To truly understand the absurdity of this, you need to appreciate the graphic over there on the right. (The higher-ranked, harder-to-beat teams are in red at the top; difficulty decreases as you go down the scale.) Do you see what’s going on there? That’s just bizarre. It seemed so clear that those two placements should be reversed that for a while I wondered if it was a typo (’cause, y’know, THAT’S never happened before).

But it wasn’t. That was the intentional design. That became clear. What also became clear was that very, very few people understood what was about to happen. In all seriousness, it would have been more beneficial for Boston to forfeit their final game against DC than play it.

That’s so, so wrong.

So I went about trying to see if this was something that could be corrected before the playoffs started. I was somewhat of a woman obsessed. Some of it was a “Hey – this is an unjust situation!” thing…but while I like things to be fair, I have no expectations that they always will be. In one of my favorite text message convos ever, I stated to a player (whose identity is redacted) that the absurdity of Boston’s experiences in the WFA playoffs should be immortalized in ballads or possible haikus, and she responded thusly:

The Kings are so dumb
They screwed Boston more than once
Haters gonna hate

So it’s not like this was new. And yet it was bothering me so much I couldn’t sleep. And I realized that the thing that was bothering me most of all was that I was afraid for my friends.

Football is fucking hard on your body (says Coach Obvious). Playing against a strong team takes a strong toll, and we were looking at potentially playing multiple really challenging games in a row to reach the conference championship while a lower-ranked team effectively faced no real challenges on their way to the same game. I didn’t want my friends to end up injured because someone didn’t know how to make a goddamn bracket.

I managed to express this to Backseat Coach one night, and he astutely observed that if one’s primary motivation is to have one’s friends not get hurt, one should maybe not be friends with football players.

It was a very good point.

And I realized I was projecting my own crap onto the team. They had not been conscripted into compulsory service for the National Conference when they would rather have stayed home and watched TV. Every one of them was making the choice, for whatever reasons, to show up and play whichever opponents they were told to face. Because they’re football players.

And here’s the piece I think I was missing until today: a championship is not about the actual trophy. It’s about what you did to get that trophy.

While I do love to rag on the WFA, there are leagues so dysfunctional that by the end of the season, there are literally not enough active teams to hold playoffs at all and the “championship” is awarded administratively. And while that’s technically a real championship title, I suppose, I would imagine that it does not feel the same as one that is earned by progressing successfully through increasingly difficult games.

Now I’m just theorizing, here, since the most physically strenuous activity that your Militia Cheerleader has ever done outside of childbirth is ballet. But I would imagine that a harder road makes for a sweeter victory. If Boston should win the next three games, starting tonight, they will have earned this championship in a way that no other team with a different path can claim. The trophy is the same, but the legacy will not be.

That’s what everyone else already knew and I just figured out. That’s what starts tonight.

1 Comment

  1. Candice says:

    I’ve been bothered by the bracket, too. There’s several free bracket-design websites to consult. I think I would feel better if they called it the WFA Tournament, not the playoffs. This would help account for replacement teams when the originally “invited” teams did not accept the invitation. In my mind, that would have made that a forfeit victory for the other team, not an opportunity to add other teams to the mix.

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