From 2016-21, the WNBA had a unique playoff format that featured byes and two single-elimination rounds. While it provided excitement, many felt the arrangement devalued the regular season and was particularly unfair to the Nos. 3 and 4 seeds, who could have excellent seasons go up in smoke with just one bad night in the single-elimination second round.
The league listened to those criticisms, and decided to make a change. In the offseason,. The top eight teams would still make the playoffs, and there would be three rounds to decide the champion: a best-of-three first round, best-of-five semifinals and a best-of-five Finals.
The initial reaction was positive, and all seem pleased about the return to a bracket. But as the playoffs approach, there has been a growing murmur of discontent about the way the first round has been set up. Instead of a 1-1-1 format, the league is using a 2-1 format, which means the higher-seeded team will host Games 1 and 2, while the lower-seeded team will host a winner-take-all Game 3, if necessary.
“We worked all year to have home-court advantage,” Chicago Sky head coach James Wade said. “If you have a bad game, then home-court advantage goes to the lower seed… You always want the deciding game, if there’s a Game 3, to be at the higher seed’s home. I’m not a fan of it at all; I don’t think any coaches are.”
It isn’t just coaches who are displeased.
“I think we’d all prefer home-away-home,” Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird said. “I understand it’s to minimize travel… I don’t know there’s an advantage, just depends on how you approach it. This isn’t what I’d like long-term, [but] I think we’re on the right path.”
The Sky and Storm are the Nos. 2 and 4 seeds, respectively, and will each have a homecourt advantage in the first round. With the first two games at home, they have a chance to win both and sweep their series without ever having to travel or play on the road. At the same time, if they have one bad night they then have to go on the road for a win-or-go-home Game 3.
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As Bird noted, the decision was clearly made for logistical and financial purposes. Take the Storm’s series against the Washington Mystics as an example. Those two cities are nearly 3,000 miles and six hours of air travel apart. Having to go back-and-forth across the country after every game would get complicated and expensive, especially with the league forbidding charter flights until the Finals.
Still, a 1-1-1 format would be much better from a competition standpoint, and that’s what is most important when trying to determine a champion. Or, better yet, the league could simply make the first round best-of-five as well. Doing so would solve some of the logistical issues without adding many days to the length of the playoffs.