Wednesday, September 5, 2012

NASL Split Season Problem

The N.A.S.L. is going to a split-season format in 2013. The first-half winner will play the second-half winner in the Soccer Bowl at the end of the season to determine the overall champion.

This is a system used in a number of Latin American leagues with some success. But in those leagues, if the same team wins both halves, it is declared the winner. In the N.A.S.L., the winner of both halves will still have to play in the Soccer Bowl against the team with the second-best overall record.

This could be a disaster, as FRB pointed out in his flashback post about the 1981 baseball split season:

This created the possibility of a team having to lose to make the playoffs. Let's look at an example.
The first half in the American League East ended like this:

Yankees 34-22; Orioles 31-23; Brewers 31-25; Tigers 31-26; Red Sox 30-26; Indians 26-24; Blue Jays 16-42.

 
Now imagine that the second half has come down to its final game. The Yankees are tied with the Indians for the best second-half record, while the Orioles are mathematically eliminated, though only a game and a half back. 

The Yankees' final game that year was against the Orioles. Now think about where that leaves the O's. If they win, the Yanks fall behind the Indians in the second-half race, and those two teams advance to the playoffs. But what if the Orioles lose? Then the Yankees win both halves, and their opponent in the playoffs is the team with the next best overall record. With a second place in the first half and a third place in the second half, that would be the Orioles!


The N.A.S.L. has to hope it doesn't run into the same situation.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Australian Rules Football Preseason Cup

Australian Rules Football has begun its preseason. But what in other sports is a series of meaningless friendlies is instead organized into an actual competition, with a winner and trophy at the end.

First, the 18 teams are split into six groups of three. Those teams play each other, all in a single day at a single site. To prevent exhaustion, the games are only half as long as an ordinary Aussie Rules game, but each counts as a full game in the Cup standings.

Over the next two weeks, each team plays two more games, one home and one away. The two teams with the best records over all four games then play in the Cup final; point differential is the tie breaker. The other 16 teams are matched up for final exhibition games, generally against a local rival.

This is a fairly modest competition, but successful on its own terms. Imagine if the N.F.L. preseason, now greeted with yawns by players, management and fans alike, had a point system and a champion. While it would not give preseason games playoff intensity, it would at least add some interest and give teams and players -- even guys who eventually get cut -- the chance for minor glory.

Using preseason record alone, the last four winners of the NFL Preseason Cup would have been Detroit, San Francisco, Baltimore, and Detroit again. Are  you telling me these teams couldn't use a trophy?

The other intriguing thing about Aussie Rules's Cup is the "half games." Again, that might be something to increase interest in the N.F.L. preseason. Would you rather go to the Meadowlands and see the Giants against the Broncos with nothing on the line, or see Giants-Ravens, Ravens-Bills, and Bills-Giants, back-to-back, with two games in the Cup standings at stake?

Of course, the N.F.L. currently has little interest in making preseason more enjoyable for fans. Season ticket-holders are stuck buying the games whether they want to or not, and then paying for parking and food at regular-season prices. Sadly, football would have to face an unlikely downturn before we see any Aussie-style innovation.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

M.L.S. Playoffs 2012

In the last post, FRB neglected to mention yet another change for M.L.S. next season: tweaks to the post-season playoffs.

FRB would get a bad headache if he had to re-explain 2011's goofy format. Take a look at his post last year for details.

Here are the changes for 2012:

First, the Western and Eastern Conferences will have separate five-team playoffs. There will be no wild cards that cross over to the other conference's bracket, as in recent years. It's good that geographical absurdities like New York being the Western champion are no more. But as he wrote last year, FRB would still rather they chuck the conferences entirely and have a true national league.

The 4-5 play-in game and the conference semifinals are unchanged. But each conference final will now be a two-game total-goals series rather than a single game. This is a good thing, as it gives quality teams a chance to rally after a bad game. 

Lastly, the single-game Cup final itself will now be at the home site of the finalist with the best record, rather than at a predetermined neutral site. Again, FRB approves: it's a good way to increase the importance of the regular league season and reward the team that played better all year.

The M.L.S. playoffs remain somewhat misbegotten, but at least these alterations move things in the right direction.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

American Soccer Changes 2012

All three competitions in which American soccer teams compete are being altered in some way in 2012. Let's take a look at the changes and see if they get an FRB thumb's up.

U.S. Open Cup

The Cup is being expanded this year. In the past, only 6 of the 16 American teams in Major League Soccer entered the Cup automatically, joining in the round of 16. The other 10 competed in a qualifying tournament for two more round of 16 berths.

This year, all 16 teams will enter the Cup at the round of 32 stage. They will be joined by 16 lower league sides who have survived from 48 early round entrants, including all U.S.-based teams in the next two teams down the pyramid, the N.A.S.L. (making its Open Cup debut) and U.S.L. Pro.

This is definitely a good thing.  M.L.S. teams mostly treated the Open Cup qualifiers as a joke, sending out teams made up of scrubs and youngsters in front of three-figure crowds. Having all of the country's elite teams entered should give the Cup a needed boost and increase visibility.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Spanish Segunda Division B Playoffs

Soccer leagues with relegation are usually pretty straightforward. Bottom three go down, top three go up.

But as you move down the pyramid, at some point leagues become regionalised. Now you have to find a way to determine which of 40, or 60 or 80 teams are promoted to the next division. This problem occurs in Spain where the second division meets the third, and they have developed a pretty good system of resolving it.

Let's start at the top. Spain's Primera Division has 20 teams. The bottom three are relegated. Next is the Segunda Division. The bottom 4 of 22 teams are relegated there.

But in the next division down, the Segunda Division B, there are fully 80 teams, 20 in each of four regionalised groups. How do we find the four teams to be promoted?

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Gaelic Football

Gaelic Football in Ireland is a rare sport in that its league competition is much less prestigious than its Cup.

There is a Gaelic Football league, though it is a somewhat sleepy affair that runs only from February through April.  Americans may be startled to learn that it is called the National Football League, or N.F.L.  (It dates to 1925, only three years after the somewhat more famous N.F.L. took that name.)

But that is only a warmup to the big event. Even if you're not an aficionado, you may have heard of it: the all-Ireland Senior Football Championship, a knockout Cup that rivets Irish sport fans every year. Here's how it works.

First teams must qualify in the Provincial championships, contested in May, June and July.  There are four of these, each a single-elimination knockout event with between 6 and 11 teams. Teams compete in their home region: either Munster, Leinster, Connacht, or Ulster. The total number of teams entered is 33: one representing each of the 32 Irish counties, except Kilkenny, plus teams representing Irish diaspora in New York and London.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Ask FRB: What's the Best Sports Structure?

Dear FRB: You were pretty critical last week of the NCAA Division 1 football format. How about an example of a sports structure that works really well?


NCAA Division 1 basketball.

Yes, though the NCAA gets football spectacularly wrong,  it has somehow stumbled on to a great system for basketball.

To appreciate the beauty of the basketball system, imagine if you had to build it from scratch. Here is your mission: You have 345 teams of different sizes and finances spread all over the country. You must determine one champion in five months. And ideally you must keep the season interesting throughout for every team, big and small, by offering intermediate trophies or at least varying the format enough to prevent boredom.

That is a very tall order. Unlike with football, it's hard to imagine  sitting down with a pencil and coming up with a much better system than the one we have.

Some of the same aspects that make the football system so infuriating work exceptionally well in basketball. Having unequal conferences makes some football teams second class citizens who can never win a national title. In basketball, the conferences help to give everyone a chance to win something at a realistic level, yet still earn a shot against the top teams at the end of the year.

An overlooked facet of the basketball system is the variety teams and fans get as the season goes along.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Ask FRB: What's the Most Complex Sports Structure?

Dear FRB:

What is the single most bafflingly convoluted sports system of them all?




This is an easy one. The N.C.A.A. Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision. No other structure, in FRB's opinion, has more unusual elements.

Imagine an intelligent person who avidly follows many sports around the world, but for whatever reason knows nothing about American college sports. Now imagine trying to describe to him how the college football champion is crowned. How many potentially confusing things would you have to explain?

1. The conference. Each is a grouping of 8 to 13 teams from one region of the country. Except that the regions overlap. And some of the conferences have spread so far out of their original regions that people have seriously discussed adding San Diego State to the "Big East."

1a. You also probably want to point out that the Big 10 has 12 teams and the Big 12 has 10.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Boxing and the Ultimate Fighting Championship

Mixed martial arts has soared in popularity in recent years, far surpassing, especially among young men, the venerable sport of boxing. Certainly some of the reason is the nature of the sport itself: fighters can kick, wrestle and elbow; there are fewer dull stretches of clinching; and the fighters are more limber than lumbering.

But FRB is more interested in structure; is there something about the way mixed martial arts is set up that gives it an advantage over boxing?

For all of recorded history, people have enjoyed watching other people fight, from gladiator fights to bare-knuckle brawling. But boxing as we know it first became popular when a coherent system was organized in the late 19th century. Unified rules and organized championships helped give the sport credibility with newspapers, and by the 20's and 30's even the austere New York Times covered its front page with boxing news.

The organization was quite straightforward: there were eight weight classes and a champion in each class who held the title until he was defeated. It was easy for fans to keep track of. Even non-fans knew the names of the heavyweight champion. Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali, Mike Tyson and many others became among the most celebrated people in the world.

The problems started in the 1960's, when two competing organizations, the WBC and the WBA, began crowning separate champions. In the  1980's they were joined by the IBF and the WBO. Most weight classes now have four champions.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

African Nations Cup Qualifying

Some readers of First Round Bye might protest that the subject of sports systems and structures is trivial. "Just play the games, and don't worry about tie breakers and wild cards," you might think.

Tell that to the South African soccer team.

With one game to go in qualifying for the 2012 African Nations Cup last weekend, the standings for Group G looked like this (3 points for a win, 1 for a draw):


TeamW/L/Dpts.goal diff.
Niger3-2-09+1
South Africa2-1-28+2
Sierra Leone2-1-280
Egypt0-3-22-3


In the final games, played simultaneously, Egypt hosted Niger and South Africa hosted Sierra Leone.
Word soon filtered back to South Africa that Egypt was beating Niger handily (they went on to win, 3-0). So here's your quiz question: what does South Africa need to do to win the group and advance to the Cup finals?

Well, beating Sierra Leone is clearly enough. That would give South Africa 11 points to Niger's 9 and Sierra Leone's 8. What about a draw? That would leave Niger, South Africa and Sierra Leone with 9 points, so I guess we better check what the tie breaker rules are.

But South Africa didn't check.

The team's coach, Pitso Mosimane, just assumed that goal difference would break ties. If so, a draw with Sierra Leone would leave the three teams' goal differences at South Africa +2, Sierra Leone 0 and Niger, thanks to its 3-0 loss, at -2. Mosimane ordered his players to play defensively and protect a 0-0 draw. He even pulled out a striker for a midfielder. When the game did end 0-0, the team celebrated their "qualification."

Mosimane was wrong. The tie breaker was not goal difference, but head to head record among the tied teams. Niger was 2-2 against South Africa and Sierra Leone, for 6 points, while the other two teams were 1-1-2, for 5 points. Niger won the group and will advance to the Nations Cup.

Whether goal difference or head-to-head is a better way to break ties in a four-team group is a question for another day. But there is clearly not one set method. The World Cup uses goal difference; the Champions League uses head-to-head. You need to know the rules before you play the games.

And how did the South African federation react to their debacle? With embarrassment, shame and regret? Nope. They are appealing to get a spot in the finals. "We think we have a case," South Africa's football chief executive said.

Actually, you don't have a case. But as a consolation prize, we award you a one year's subscription to First Round Bye. Please read it.